Friday, 27 April 2018

INDIA RESEARCH TRIP - Part 3 - revisiting Nanpara, the home of my Indian forebears

A UP village in the fog

Shishir, a merchant navy officer, and the son of Shobha, the farmer’s son who looked after my grandparents in their old age and whom they left the house to, had kindly met us at Lucknow with a car and driver to take us to Nanpara.  It was reassuring to have a local driver because the one thing I had forgotten, when I wrote those lyrical descriptions of northern Indian winters in Belonging, was the thick fogs. In the mornings, before the sun gets hot enough to thin it out, it is so dense that sometimes you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you. Driving is terrifying, as truck drivers overtake blindly even on roads that have trees or ditches lining either side, so there is nowhere to go. But it was afternoon when we left Lucknow, so visibility was slightly better and our driver was remarkably calm and unfazed by lorries suddenly materialising on our side of the road out of the fog.

Seeing my grandparents’ house again produced mixed feelings. The last time I had visited Nanpara, when I was twenty-nine, it was May - harvest time, and the hottest month of the year. Many government offices close and people go home to their villages to visit family or help with bringing the crops in. The Courts close for the whole month too, and by then Dad was practicing law (a more traditional occupation for a kayashta) in Bombay High Court after he retired from the Navy, having done his bar exams at Lincoln's Inn while naval attache at the Indian High Commission in London in the 1950s.

The house was then almost at the end of the village. The narrow road between it and Shiva temple opposite ran on through open fields and past a small village with a few traditional huts with thatched roofs and whitewashed mud walls dotted with cowpats that had been stuck there to dry out in the sun. On that particular day, the men were threshing, their arms swinging in rhythm as they flailed at the wheat on the ground, and flecks of grain and husk filled the air around them and stuck to the sweat on their bare chests, arms and faces, so they looked as if they’d been gilded. Nearby, women in bright saris shook the threshed grains back and forth in large flat baskets on their heads; the winnowed husks showered down, forming a shimmering veil around them. I wished I’d brought a camera but - perhaps because I hadn’t - the picture has stayed in my mind as a living memory rather than a static image.

Walking on through the fields, we came to a low thatched shelter, about waist high, and open at the front, in which sat a hermit – a Brahmin called Lallu Maharaj- a simple soul who was supplied with food by people from the nearby villages. My father walked out to meet him for a philosophical chat every time he visited. A couple of miles further on stood a small white Hindu temple by a large pond, shaded by trees and full of water hyacinth. It was picturesque and peaceful, and it has often appeared in my dreams. 

But Lallu is long gone, as is the traditional village. The area is now built up with single storey rough brick houses, and when we finally found the temple I barely recognised it. It has been painted pink, which seems to be a new fashion for temples, as the one opposite the house has been too. The pond is now almost dried up, the remaining water stagnant and full of rubbish. The priest, a striking looking man, outfitted in magenta, presumably to match his temple, looked pleased to be asked to pose for a picture. 

Inside the courtyard of my grandparents’ house, the changes were even greater. The internal walls dividing the different family properties have gone, and the entire courtyard is now one property instead of the four it used to be. Two of the other family properties, which used to be in separate plots within the same walled courtyard, and most of my grandparents’ house, have been demolished, all except the front wall with its red pillars, which opened into the verandah where my grandfather used to sit on his charpoi (rope-strung bed), resting from his labours in the vegetable garden and talking philosophy with my father. Behind the wall now stands the shell of an impressive two storey house, every detail designed by Shobha himself, with pillars and a roof terrace, still awaiting doors, windows, floors, plumbing and electrics.

The old verandah area 

The new house looms over the front wall of the old house
Shobha was still the same, even forty years later: funny, smart and confident. He and his wife, Renu, made us very welcome and generously gave up their bedroom to us. While the house has been being built, as time and money becomes available, Shobha and his family have been camping in the last inhabitable rooms of the one property that still stands in one corner of the courtyard. When the big house is finished they too will be demolished. 

Shishir and his sister Saumya showed us around the village to the places connected with our family history (covered in the last blog). In the evenings we sat, reminisced, ate delicious local delicacies produced by Renu and her sister-in-law, and told stories around a bowl of burning logs in the ground floor of the unfinished new house. 

The family showed us round and helped me to identify the places I remembered – the site of the old well that used to stand under a mango tree on a raised stone platform behind the house which now lies under the new building; the old open air toilets, where three people could squat side by side; my grandfather’s beloved vegetable garden, which is still in use; and the corner of the courtyard which used to bound our family unit, where my grandmother used to squat to cook at her open-air hearth. The open air kitchen with the tiled roof, is still there beside it, though that too will go when the house is finished.

Outside our courtyard, the village and its people are still in essence the same, and the lifestyle is still much as I remember it – apart from mobile phones, technology is still largely missing from home life. There is still curiosity about foreign visitors, the obligatory visits to old family friends, the welcome and hospitality, the ceremonial offer of tea or lassi and delicious snacks, and sitting around the fire in people’s gardens, talking of the old days.

The view from the roof terrace of the new house

After Nanpara, we returned to Lucknow for a couple of days. If we still have family in the city, I have lost touch with them. My father’s closest relative, his first cousin - Doctor Sahb as he was always known - died some years before my father, estranged from his wife and children. He had disowned both his sons for marrying out of their caste. My father tried to persuade him to be less inflexible, but in vain. His autocratic behaviour and refusal to adapt to changing society eventually alienated even his dutiful and long-suffering wife, who went to live in America with her daughter. He ended up alone, a sad, embittered old man. I liked Sushil, the older son, very much but sadly lost touch with him and his lovely Punjabi wife. The younger son, Lalloo, who had married an Air Force pilot's widow, died young. I never met his wife.

There is another branch of the family in Lucknow but, unlike my grandfather and father, they were very conservative. I never liked them much and never felt accepted by them. On the couple of occasions that Dad and I stayed with them overnight on the way to Nanpara, I felt as though, as a “half-caste”, I was seen as a source of contamination. I don’t think any of them ever accepted my father’s marriage, and he never brought my mother to U.P. to meet the family. 

So in Lucknow now I am just a tourist, but it is a city full of fascinating history and well worth visiting. More about that in the next blog. 

Next blog: A visit to Lucknow, Amritsar and the Partition Museum and a visit to the Wagah border.  Still to come: Our return to Delhi and my talk at the United Services Institute to an audience of generals and brigadiers. And a hair-raising adventure on the way to the Jaipur Festival. 

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