How I found the real Ahmedabad when I was lost.
|I had stayed in Mumbai since the beginnings of my memory; I knew and reveled in its teeming masses. I thrived on traveling by the crowded suburban trains, one arm looped around the pole at the carriage entrance, the wind whipping my hair into my eyes. I took plunging through a great tide of commuters as a part of daily existence and found nothing unpleasant in the street smells which mingled the eclectic bouquet of sweat, receding tide and exhaust fumes.
So, my sojourn in Ahmedabad had proved unnerving in its cultural and physical differences. I had taken up post-graduate studies at the university but was wondering if I could bear to stick it out for two whole years. I was unused to the searing heat of summer and the cheek-chafing bitter winds of winter. There was no rain as such, just a few scattered droplets that were instantly soaked up by the parched earth, I longed for the furious sheets of rain that Mumbai’s monsoon boasted. I found the curiosity of the people intrusive after Mumbai’s indifference. I preferred to keep to myself but they just wouldn’t let me be.
That is why I was lumbering down the road in a rickety contraption of tin, laughingly termed a bus, on this intensely hot day in May. I was on my way to have lunch at a co-student’s house; she lived off-campus and had invited me for a home-cooked meal.
Head bent like a curious flamingo, I peered out of the window for the landmark I had been given. The pan-chewing gentleman that I was almost eclipsing looked up at me in concern, and kindly enquired of me “Kyan javu che?” Where are you going?
I could follow the language quite easily but could not converse, however to give the name of my bus stop was within my capabilities, “Stadium.”
“Pan e to pachi gayi” But that was way back.
“Gadi roko” Stop the vehicle. He immediately half rose from his seat and waved his arms wildly to underline the necessity for a halt. The bus belched to an obliging halt with a teeth-jarring squeal of brakes. At least five or six people shouted unhelpfully varying directions at me as I stumbled off the steps.
The directions whirling in my mind; I decided to avoid further mishap by retracing the bus route. I came eventually to the prescribed bus stop at one of the roads leading to this large circle. At least five or six other roads led off it. I peered down each of them by turn but spotted no large iron pillar which was the landmark given me.
The sun made my neck prickle with a burning sensation, as I dragged reluctant feet down one road and then the other. I passed charming two-storied bungalows without any appreciation of their layout, longing to step into the blessed shade of their porticos.
I made my way past one, which had a small garden in front with a sheltered porch where a swing made lazy slow arcs at the behest of one practiced foot. Surely, I had seen that silver head before, bent over a plate of grains, which she was gleaning for impurities. Yes, this hibiscus bush was familiar, I had been going around in circles, these roads interconnected somewhere and I was now surely lost. Should I go back or press on? As I hesitated, lost in my dilemma, conscious of a shriveling feeling, I saw the old lady get off the swing with the stiffness of old joints.
I protruded parched tongue over cracked lips and tried to get a little saliva in my mouth to make some sound and ask for help, when I saw her beckon me in wild gesticulation as she ambled into the house.
I shrugged hesitation away and followed her into the cool relief of the high-roofed hall. My saviour was shouting for someone and a little girl ran up in response.
The endearing child was about seven and evidently in the process of shedding her school uniform. She had on a frilly petticoat but the tie was still askew around her neck and one dusty sock still adorned one foot.
“Yes, Auntie?” she inquired, to my relief. Ah, I could now convey my problem.
Another girl in her teens had come in, closely followed by two young matrons in saris, with their heads decorously covered with the pallus.
“I’m looking for Priti Solanki’s house.”
The teenager had by now fetched me a tall glass filled with the most delicious nectar, icy cold water. I slowly savoured the fluid, welcoming the drops that dribbled down my chin at the first greedy gulp.
There was a buzz of conversation behind me as the possible identity and location of Priti was discussed. One possibility was dismissed as being a Pinky not a Priti, another was scornfully discarded because she had married and gone abroad.
A cup of tea was pressed upon me with the charming explanation that it was just to 'give company' to them. As though they normally make tea at lunchtime.
Seeing my reluctance, they struck a bargain of ‘just half’, and poured their half into the capacious saucer and offered me the cup. I took a hesitant sip of the scalding contents as they carelessly but noisily slurped it up. I followed suit, the pursed-lip slurp prevented the heat being felt by lips or tongue.
Oh, yes, there was Himmat’s sister-in-law, she was a Solanki and she went to the Government Medical College. Violent head nods from me asserted that they had the right person in mind.
A shout went up of “Ritesh, Reeetesh,” all the voices combining to render a resonating cry. A pajama-clad, painfully thin young man came in and was told peremptorily by the old lady to drop me off at the corner house in the next lane and to make sure I was safe before leaving.
The boy, for he was not more than in his late teens by appearance, drew on a pullover over his pajama jacket. Without any complaint or argument, he then mounted a battered scooter, nodding at me to hop on.
I held my breath in disbelief that the ancient vehicle could carry us forward, but before I could let out a sigh of relief at its mobility, we were at the correct house. The iron pillar stood tall in the road before the house, a totally useless landmark for one trying to find one’s way, but it served to confirm the address.
My benefactor waved me in, refusing all attempts to thank him; watching as I lifted the latch of the gate to enter the house.
I felt warm and safe and content, feelings that lasted my extended sojourn of four years in Ahmedabad. I never minded the cultural differences again; I grew to accept climatic vagaries.
Always sure that if ever I needed help, the stranger next to me would turn into a concerned friend.
Word count: 1173