More on growing up in Lahore here
Lights are ‘out’ these days oftener than ‘in’ ….
Soon, my thoughts settled on memories I have not visited in years. Memories I have unsuccessfully tried to evoke before but they proved to be elusive, leading me down dark alleys and then disappearing into thin air. I am convinced that navigating your memories is not like getting from A to B using your SatNav, with a voice – that irritatingly reminds you of somebody in your family – telling you to take a left after a hundred yards. It is more like getting from R to S in an urban jungle: an overpopulated city, bursting at its’ seams and a complex network of winding streets with no names tattooed across its’ bloated belly. Equipped not with a SatNav but a mind dizzied by the frenetic pace of the city’s life and vague directions gleaned from inhabitants who are equally dazed. Your best bet in such cases is to walk aimlessly in the hope of spotting a familiar landmark that will help you navigate. In any case, as soon as I was plunged into total darkness, something lit up in my head. As if the darkness was the landmark I was looking for. Everything miraculously fit into place.
Memories from a cold winter night that had us huddled together, wrapped up in our chadars. We sat down in the glow of a solitary candle – only one burned because my grandmother was averse to wastage – huddled together, around our grandmother – the repository of enchanting tales, and family history. In addition to my parents and my grandmother, two of my paternal uncles lived in our family house.
I was the youngest and my grandmother’s favorite grandchild. My spot was in her lap, wrapped up in the warmth of her chadar. My grandmother’s affections were offered too widely, and when they extended beyond my brother, on account of my possessiveness I would get restless, eventually finding reassurance during our ‘light out’ ritual. I had often gone to sleep perched comfortably on her lap, slowly tuning out of her stories, into dreams populated by images inhabited by the enchanted beings of her tales. But that night I resisted sleep.
Conversation settled on life during the war with India, two decades earlier. This was fascinating stuff and I was hooked. I asked my uncle how it was like growing up in such circumstances. His face lit up and his eyes glazed over as he revisited his youth. They had to evacuate the city, he said, to live in sparsely populated areas outside the city. These areas were considered safer because they made unattractive targets – a bomb would kill fewer people in such areas, and would not be a good return on investment. At night at the sound of a siren they would hasten to the makeshift bomb shelters, and spend hours cooped up in these cold subterranean enclosures.
The light used to go for at least an hour. After about half an hour my uncle’s would declare that a cup of tea would be much appreciated. I was not allowed tea by my grandmother, but was allowed to have two biscuits, and if my uncle let me, I could dip them in his tea. I loved my two tea-soaked biscuits.
The single candle accompanied my aunt into the kitchen at the back of the house, leaving the rest of us in complete darkness. I was scared of darkness and once the candle was gone I retreated deeper into the folds of my grandmother’s chadar. She knew my fear and held me tighter, but she never let anyone else know I was scared. I closed my eyes and let my head rest against her chest. Listening to the gentle dhak-dhak of her heart, feasting on the familiar scent that emanated from her. As was her habit, she felt the back of my head with her hand; firmly pressing in places where she felt it did not make a perfect shape. I was later told that I owed the odd shape of my head – very much like an inverted letter ‘L’, traditionally thought to be the most desirable shape of a man’s head – to the attentions of my grandmother during my infancy.
To keep my mind off the darkness, she started asking me about school. She was very conservative and would have been happier if I were attending an all boys school, that I was not weighed heavy on her heart. She asked me if I was talking to too many girls – this she did very quietly fearing a reaction from her sons – no, Ammi, I said, I do not talk to any girls – this I whispered in her ear so no one else would overhear and I know she smiled. We were in the middle of our secret conversation when the tea arrived, and with it the solitary candle. With the room dimly lit again I wriggled out of the folds of my grandmother’s chadar, ready for my biscuits.
Tea was enjoyed in silence punctuated by sounds from the neighborhood. In those days Lahore became very quiet at night. Voices and sounds from outside softly floated into our living rooms, they were guests I met with warmth and familiarity. The sonorous voice of the chowkidar (watchman), who rode his bicycle in the streets after dark, brought with it a sense of safety. The street hawker’s earnest urgings followed those of the chowkidar’s. His “Garam Anday” (Boiled eggs), started at a loud note, and by the time he reached the ‘day’ of the ‘Anday’ the note became much softer, and his call seamlessly merged into the silken silence. Then I heard the aunty next door calling out to her son in for dinner. He was my age and we played cricket in his backyard on Sunday mornings. They owned a VCR and color TV, whenever I was allowed to, I would go and watch cartoon videos in color. These interesting sounds were intermingled with the continuous chirping of the crickets infesting our backyard.
We had a small backyard. My grandmother would rise with the sun and after praying and breakfast would head out to supervise the old mali, who tended after our small garden. Although, my grandmother doted over me, the irreverent manner in which I made use of her garden had led to a few fights between us. I remember, once, curiosity got the better off me and I decided to pull out one of her favorite rose bushes. She ran after me for a good two minutes, that was all her old age allowed, and then she sat down, breathing heavily. After regaining her breath she started sweet-talking. I was young and naïve. My miscalculation got me a good beating. Feeling betrayed I decided to leave her house. I packed up the few clothes I had and walked over to my maternal aunt’s house. Later that day when she came to get me I hid under my aunt’s bed refusing to come out. Eventually, I did come out when she made me an offer I could not refuse – a five-rupee note. My grandmother never carried a handbag, instead, she would fold a few notes in a corner of her dupatta (a piece of cloth used to cover the head) and secure them with knots, that day as a goodwill gesture, she even allowed me to untie the knot and extract the note myself.
I ate my biscuits and reclaimed my favorite spot. My grandmother wrapped her arms around me, and held my small hands in hers. She had beautiful hands, with soft, smooth, milky white skin – warm to the touch.I let my mind wonder away from the candle lit room. In no mood for adventure, my thoughts did not venture into the vivid world of my imagination, instead they lingered on the upcoming weekend trip to my maternal uncle’s house. My mother’s family all lived in a single neighborhood. I had three cousins my age from my mother’s side, and with my brother and I, we added up to five. Like the famous five we had our little adventures, the most exciting adventure at the time was roof crawling. After dark we would sneak to the roof of my uncle’s house. From his roof we could climb over to our neighbors’ house, from there a three foot leap would get us onto the tin roof of a factory, on the other end the tin sheets led onto the roof of another neighbor, and that was our most favored destination. There we would sit together, pockets full of pine nuts and peanuts, telling each other ghost stories. For this weeks’ adventure I had spent hours fashioning a firefly-powered candle. The fireflies communed around the row of guava trees that lined the eastern wall of our house – I had often scaled these trees to retrieve my grandmother’s afternoon snack. I had five of them in a small glass jar. For three days, I had donned my overcoat and the wool cap my grandmother had knit, and hunted for them after sunset. I had rigged holes into the jar for air and left a small piece of bread for food.
I was drawn out of my reverie by the voice of my aunt, who had asked my grandmother to tell us about her husband. She loved talking about her husband. She told us about his early success as a movie producer and how later he had faced one setback after another and virtually lost all the money he had made. I listened attentively, through her stories getting a glimpse of the grandfather I had never known. Our lesson in family history was interrupted midway when the lights returned; the candle was extinguished, as a hundred year spell is undone with the gentlest of kisses, so was the magic of our family ritual.
Lights are ‘out’ these days oftener than ‘in’ ….
In these precious moments of darkness I had traversed years of my childhood. A childhood that reminds me of a scene from a place I visited a few years ago. The small chamber was lit by candles burning silently in niches, the light from one candle spread for a few feet, reaching out as far as it could and its’ dying light embraced that of the next candle, forming an intricate pattern of light and darkness throughout the chamber. The life of my grandmother, and through her that of others before her, embraced and enriched my life, weaving itself into mine through stories – some remembered, but most forgotten. My life too, reaches out to weave itself into another’s – seeking a candle that will burn ever so slightly brighter with the little light I may bequeath to it.