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My Slice of South Asian History

Lucknow’s historical Rumi Darwaza

A Pakistani’s long-planned visit to India after 20 years brings back a whole new world of powerful memories and emotions and creates many more to last for a lifetime


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat I love most about vacations is my chance to meet my cousins in Pakistan. Contrary to the present times, when sibling ties are all that anyone has time for (and that too barely), we are blessed in that my cousins and I remain a closely-knit set of friends, age no bar.

Thanks to the various chatting devices and our telephones, all of us manage to stay in constant contact.

But this time round, my vacation was to my ancestral home in India, and it took much planning (and several trips to the consulate!) to get all the papers in order to finally make the journey.

I bought a brand new ‘point and shoot’ camera, for I intended to take pictures of Lucknow’s historical heritage — the magnificent Imam baras, the central railway station, and especially my own neighborhood and historical 
ancestral house.

With so much history to absorb, and the sights and sounds of the India that I had long left behind still ringing in my years, I barely found time to buy presents for my cousins in India, all of them young children when I last visited. Because of my keen interest in history, and also because I had hardly bothered to keep in touch with my cousins in India,

Jama Masjid, Lucknow

I was looking forward to just securing memories of places rather than faces in my camera’s lens. How I had longed to see the playground of my childhood in the last 20 years, telling anyone who would listen, about a neighbourhood called Farangi Mahal where everyone lived as one big family, or the mango fields in Kakori, my paternal village, but never getting round to filing 
my visa application.

All my childhood years, my cousins and I would travel from Pakistan to visit my grandmother’s home in Lucknow in the summer. What fun those trips had been, climbing up and down guava and mango trees all day with not a worry of the world. But once board exams, marriages and child-bearing took control of our travel itinerary, none of us had found the opportunity to return 
to India.

How happy my grandmother would have been to see my children play in the same courtyard where I had played not that long ago, for she had asked to see them endless times. If only she had lived to see this day!

This trip is for you, I whispered to her silently as we approached the house after the long drive from the airport, heart pounding fast and hard at the thought of realising such an old dream.

Nothing has changed, I thought, as we reached home and I took the short walk down narrow lanes that never did have room for cars. The smells of sweetmeats still beckoned, and the block-print shopkeepers went about their business of stamping un-starched white cotton with navy blue motifs as if they had never left.

The house and its occupants welcomed me with open arms. The papaya tree might have long made way for orange trees, and the verandah secured by a grill to keep out the monkeys, but the rooftop where I had spent hours playing make-belief games retained its charm.

It brought back a surge of memories, some so real that I could almost see them unfold — my grandfather calling out to the pigeons as he fed them, the open kitchen rattling with activity as preparations were made for a heavy breakfast, as was the routine, the incessant sound of the house door as neighbors visited every now and then, and the bangles seller sitting on the floor at the entrance of the house, eager to show off her wares..

I was snapped out of my hallucinating head trip by hurried introductions, as one cousin took hold of my luggage and another took control of the children.

While I was away a whole new generation of cousins had evolved, all grown up and complaining about the long while that I had been away — as if I had returned after a two-week trip rather than an absence of 20 years.

A cousin who had been not more than 18 when we last met was now arranging clothes and jewellery for her daughter’s wedding. The little boy who would watch horror TV serials with me despite being scared witless the last time that I was there, was now getting married. And little kids who had often gone to asleep in my lap as toddlers and babies were now young men, looking after my little ones as they took off to the rooftop, and tucking them into bed.

Lucknow’s landmark Bara Imambara

As overwhelming as the experience might sound, and as faint as the past memories and relationships may appear, my visit was far from it.

It was like time had stood still for the past 20 years that I could not meet my relatives. My cousins left their jobs, study leaves and even the oh-so-addictive Farmville to answer every little whim of the children and myself. All I had to do was bellow for phone credit, mineral water or diapers, samosas, barfi or chaat, and they were presented in a jiffy out of nowhere even if it was after midnight when I made my demands.

So showered (read spoilt) was I with affection and care that I was ashamed of my not staying in touch with my cousins all these years. The least I could have done was stay connected with them in ways other than visiting.

I had applied for the Indian visa determined to revisit my roots and write about them. My costly camera was supposed to capture images of old albeit dilapidated buildings that were of historical significance.

But I returned with the camera memory — and my own — overflowing with pictures of the wonderful cousins that I had discovered there. And all I could write about were the new friendships forged (hopefully forever), the earnest promises made to stay in touch, and the longing in my heart to meet them again and again.
All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan

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