Saturday, November 22, 2008

Those Days... of India

Amidst hatred, strife and blood, a nation was born. A nation built on democracy and pluralism. It shook, it faltered but it stood. But one day, the nation ended. Vikram, born into another generation, can still see the scars of those days. Those days... of India.


I hate funerals. They're long and sad. And the women cry a lot.

So why did I come to attend this one? Two reasons. One, I have to. That's the law in Gujarat: the King says so. Two, this was not any other relative, it was my grandfather. Not that I was very close to him - come now, how many of you can say you really loved all your relatives. But Kishan dadaji was different: he would always tell me stories. Stories of lands far away, of noisy cars and inspiring speeches.

"Oh, Vikram, you lazy boy! Don't just sit there, your aunt needs to drink some tea. Go and buy some milk, hurry!" You've probably guessed by now that that was my mother. I always do the chores, yet I'm the 'lazy boy.'

I always disliked walking on the streets of my grandfather's village, Surendranagar. I preferred the roads in Gandhinagar, where I lived. But of course, I really had no choice but to find some milk. Another problem with villages in the Kingdom of Gujarat is that you can never find a shop that sells anything, although if you search long and hard, you'll eventually find one.

Surendranagar is a strange village: it has strange, seemingly useless objects littered all around. No one ever cleans the place, so you can find pieces of old newspaper flying about in the wind. My grandfather used to collect old newspapers, and he left his entire collection of The Times of India (an old, out-of-business newspaper that I never read) to me. I might be able to make a quick buck off it, I suppose. 

It had been quite some time since I last visited the village, but it still looked the same. There were old banners strewn about some shops - all with Indian National Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party written on them. My grandfather told me about them once: they were these groups of people who held 'parties' and asked other people to kill their neighbours. He mentioned something about an 'Assembly' but I never saw such a thing.

Splat! A rotten newspaper just hit my face! The headline caught my attention though: INDIA DIVIDED AMONG MONARCHS, dated November, 2047. Oh, what an ancient date, I wonder why anybody would care for such old news!

"Oh, Vikram beta? So nice to see you again." It was Shakuntalaben, the village spinster and gossip-machine. She knew everything, or at least everything worth knowing. "Hello, Shakuntalaben, I'm here for dadaji's funeral."

"Oh, of course, how sad of him to die, that too just a day before he received the package he had been waiting for. Would you deliver it to your dadiji, please?" Curious, I took the package, sure to open it before handing it over. 

In Surendranagar, you have to be careful while walking, because some of the roads have collapsed statues of dead, unknown people. They were built decades ago, when the Kingdom was controlled by some people called MPs and MLAs. My grandfather told me about them: they would instigate violence among people and yet declare that all people were one. How strange! After many years of living under their cruel, tyrannical rule in the Kingdom of India (they called it a 'Republic'), the Kingdoms broke away and that's how Gujarat, my homeland, was born.

There are still some very old people in the village who lived under that cruel rule. For some reason, they seem to miss it and sing a particular song on 26 January every year. It goes something like 'Jana Gana...' I dislike it somewhat: we should be proud of our Kingdom and our King, not reminisce about some foregone state that seemed to be deeply divided anyway.

I finally found a shop that sold Tiranga Milk, the only brand my grandmother would drink (I have no idea why). Next to it was Lakhanbhai's antique shop. It was a long time since I last dropped by, so I decided to visit Lakhanbhai.

"Oh, how are you, Vikram? It's been a long time."

"Yes, bhaiya, it has. I'm doing quite well, I'm here to attend grandfather's funeral. Kingdom Laws and Customs and all, you know. So how has your business been doing? Any new artifacts?"

"Yes, have a look at this beauty. A granite pillar, carved with four lions and a chakra. Isn't it beautiful? I just hope it's a Hindu object, you know how the King dislikes objects of other religions."

"It's beautiful, I'm sure even the King would try to get hold of it! I'll met you later bhaiya, they're waiting for me back in dadiji's house."

On the way back home, I decided to take a shortcut. I wish I hadn't, because the shortcut passed by a wall that was covered in blood. Such sights are fairly common in Gujarat, they are scars of our Freedom Movement. Only after countless people were killed did we become an Independent Kingdom.

Once I reached back home, my mother was livid because I was late. But she hurried away to boil the milk. Meanwhile, I opened grandfather's secret package. It was a large tapestry, probably meant to be hung in his room. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to do that, though. For one, it was black-and-white, two colours that died out centuries ago. And second, it just had a picture of two men, whom I had never seen before.

The caption below it read - 'Mahatma Gandhi with Nehru, August 15, 1947.' My grandfather always had a taste for strange things.

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