a day in nagpur looking for the old days & ways

Very early the second morning after our arrival in Bombay, we flew off once again–jet setters we are!–to visit Hubby’s sister and brother-in-law in Nagpur where  Hubby was born and often refers to as “home.” This is his sister Saradi.

And this is her husband, Dr. Nagarajan, the author of some of the more distinguished comments on a few of my Wintersong posts. Quite the educated pair, he holds several PhDs as well as one D. Litt already and currently working on a second. She earned her master’s degree after her kids were born. These are the posed versions of the two, the resulting likeness you get when you ask someone if it’s okay if you take their picture. Very nice, but only revealing how you looked the day the photograph was taken.

But do they show the real “you”? Invariably the pictures I like best are those taken without warning, preferably after someone has just cracked a joke or repeated an old family story. This is my favorite pictures of these two; it’s the image of them I now carry around in my head.

Then, as is often customary when you visit someone’s home for the very first time–particularly when you’re staying overnight–there’s a quick tour to show you where things are. This is Saradi’s kitchen with that familiar two burner stovetop similar to the others I’ve been seeing in homes I’ve visited (and the houseboat in Kerala).

When I spotted this sewing machine in an extra bedroom, it took me back to my childhood and my own mother’s old straight-stitch Singer sewing machine. This model is India’s answer to Singer, an Usha,  and is about 70 years old according to Hubby, probably purchased not too many years after India first produced their own indigenous sewing machine in 1934. This one works by turning the wheel on the right with your hand while pushing the pedal to and fro with your feet. I remember how tiring that was when I was forced to take a home conomics class in my old grade school in Florida.

Shelves in the living room are filled with books, several of which were authored by Dr. Nagarajan himself. Imagine my surprise–and pride–when I spied my own there as well (the book with the red spiral binding in this stack).

We made our way through several cups of tea and coffee and other treats Saradi had kept in store for us in short time. We spend a couple or more hours in the local Orthopedic clinic to check my thigh that was still quite bothersome and happy after the x-rays when Doc assures us there’s nothing more serious than hemotoma and that all that’s needed is a few days of rest. After lunch we take the car and driver hired for the day to explore the old haunts of Nagpur. Our first stop led to a short hike around a quiet garden alongside a very large lake. (I wish I’d taken more and better notes because now I can’t remember what it was called.) Not far in, we felt we’d been catapulted into a lover’s lane rather than a public garden.

Imagine the chagrin of the two couples from the photo above, shown closeup here. They obviously thought they’d found the perfect hideaway from prying eyes until I showed up with camera in hand. The couple on the left pull a thin scarf to cover their heads, but the seemingly oblivious couple on the green bench behind the umbrella, backs to us, are pretty sure they’re safe. Oooooh, despicable me!

 Hubby was really surprised to see so many college age men and women co-mingling along the path. That is not the India he remembered leaving behind 45 years ago. There were couples (some even smooching surreptitiously) everywhere.

We all wondered aloud if the parents of these students knew where their children were. Clearly, India today is not the India that Hubby remembers. Even Saradi was amused but still a bit taken aback at such public displays of affection. This behavior was unheard of during her college years.

Our tour continued with a search for the neighborhood where they had lived when they were young. Instead of the row of small bungalows they remembered, their old street was covered with a partially completed, several storied glass and aluminum shopping structure. It was hard to imagine what it had been like all those years ago. There’s the street corner where Dr. Gayaprasad’s practice had been–the building still standing where the family went when in need of medical treatment. They fondly recollected the doctor. In Hindi “Gaya” means gone and “Prasad” means blessings. They remembered that everytime they had to visit him, the doctor would jovially remind them that after he was born and given the name Gayaprasad, there were no blessings left. Funny, the memories of childhood that stay with you forever.

After I turned 25 or so, I began to realize the only constant in life is change. Various learned people have said so. Thomas Wolf reminded us of  it when he wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, and Greek philosopher Heralitus (c 535 BC-475 BC) when he said you cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on. But I maintain that–for some of us–the only human begging routinely for change is a wet baby.

We did find another neighborhood nearby reminiscent of the old one, at least close enough that Hubby was quick to point it out to me. Even though the light of day was fast fading, I snapped a picture. With a bit of photoshopping, I could see a row of bungalows behind a shopping district with restaurants and clubs…unlit streets…young people milling about. I tried to imagine a little boy around 10 playing in the unlit streets with his three older brothers and the neighborhood gang of boys whose fathers could be heard cursing them for not being at home studying. By reputation, only Hubby and his three older brothers could afford to ignore their studies for play because they were all No. 1 in their classes, thus had no need to study.

No visit to a new city can be complete, of course, until we’ve had a meal in a fancy restaurant, even though Hubby pointed out I’d posted enough food pictures already. We ate in what appeared to be a restaurant popular with the locals. Dr. Nagarajan ordered family sized portions of some of our favorites shown here on my plate, left to right clockwise from 11 o’clock position, spinach saag, bhindi (okra–sometimes called “lady’s fingers” in India) masala, a curry of mixed vegetables, and dal. On the table are slices of raw onion and a flat Indian bread.

The restaurant’s decor was quite unlike that of the typical Indian restaurant in the U.S. This one featured artfully arranged, three dimensional thread spools on a quilted background of dark blue fabric.

Sculptured birds in flight above narrow fabric covered pastel panels create a colorful backdrop that suggest to me lakes, mountains, and other natural vistas.

Outside as we were looking for our car and driver, Dr. Nagarajan pointed at the theater across the street. He mentioned that he and his wife had often had dinner in the same restaurant and attended movies when they were younger.

I hadn’t seen them for several years, the last time being around 1995. I remembered Dr. N was feted a year ago with a celebration of his 80th birthday. Saradi, in her 70s, was several years younger. Measuring them in terms of my own aging, I expected to find an old, frail couple. For that reason we limited our visit to only an overnight stay. What we found instead was a couple with seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm for life. While Dr. N and myself were less willing or able to scout about on foot, Saradi almost put all of us to shame during our shopping expeditions of the day to find the perfect gold earrings as a gift for me (I wear them nearly all the time now) and a stylish Indian Kurta (off-white with gold trim) for Hubby. When we left to return to Bombay early the next morning, we were wishing that we had been able to extend our stay a bit longer so we could have spent more time with them.

When a Quilt is More Than a Quilt

I have a collection of homemade quilts that I keep in a glass-front cabinet. Other than using them as decorative throws, I rarely use them because they don’t fit my queen- and king-sized beds. They fit only the double beds of their day. Every now and then I begin to think it’s time to clean out some of the debris from years ago. It’s time to move on. But not the quilts! Never the quilts.

Usually once a month when I was a child, from late fall through winter, after the farm crops harvested and disposed, the house scrubbed clean and we kids were all off to school, Mama went to quilting bees. My olders siblings usually went home after school to attend to chores and enjoy the rare hometime without adults. I could either go home with them, or I could join her at her quilting bee by riding whichever school bus passed the home of the hostess that month. Most of the time I chose to go to the quilting bees, and indeed looked forward to those outings.

In Mrs. Polhill’s house there was a piano in the front parlour. As long as I “played” quietly, she allowed me to use it. Once her granddaughter from the city was there, and after my initial shyness wore off, she taught me little tunes to play. Before anything, however, I always went to the kitchen to chose a snack of whatever I wanted to eat from the leftovers on a big, covered table there. Always there was an array of  cakes and pies, as well as other foods from the traditional potluck the women brought, and always there was home brewed sweet tea in giant-sized pickle jars.
One of my favorite things to do, however, was to sneak underneath the quilt that was stretched onto a fabric-edged wooden frame hanging from the ceiling by strategically placed hooks. Quilting began at the squares around the edges, then two of the side frames were rolled towards each other until the middle was reached, and all the squares were finished one by one. As a new quilt was begun, there was quite a space left beneath for a child to play.
Sometimes, because of my “younger” eyes, I was called on to thread their quilting needles, while they quilted and shared gossip and jokes that I didn’t understand. I’d busy myself picking up wooden thread spools and other things they dropped. Sometimes I’d find a stray fly swatter and I’d swat a few flies, and as they progressed, they soon forgot I was there, and I was privy to raunchy jokes everybody  would laugh at. Even Mama, so serious and solemn most of the time, was a little carefree surrounded by all her quilting friends.  

The ladies would leave one by one near the end of the day, in time to go home to prepare supper for their families, but not before deciding who had enough quilt tops done and would be ready to host the next quilting bee. The hostess would be the proud owner of 3 or 4 new quilts that seemed to get fancier and more color-coordinated each year. 
The ladies are as clear in my mind today as ever, and it’s hard to believe that all are gone now — Miz Clarinda Pope, who died in 2000 after reaching the ripe old age of 100, Miz Lizzie Rump, Miss Myrtice Flanagan. They were good Christian women, pillars of their community, but they showed a little different side of themselves when they were there in those rooms full of friends and quilts, sides I often wonder if their husbands and families ever saw. It’s just not in me to move on from the memories–more numerous than the pies and cakes, the jars of sweet tea on that covered table, and even the naughty jokes I eavesdropped on during those bygone days–of women just being themselves and not worrying about what others were thinking.