Mausa belonged to the landed gentry but had fallen on bad times and lived in a dilapidated and run down house. However, he always exuded a sense of contentment. Chitra Singh sketches a heartwarming vignette of her maternal uncle.
In those days there was no piped water in the houses. Water came once a day in the canal which flowed along the roadside, adjacent to the houses. The water was sparkling clean, and everyone filled it to suit their requirements. A village carrier likewise brought drinking water from the village well. Those were easy going times, yet everyone did their bit, and I don’t remember any tension in the households regarding water.
I was about six when my mother, in a momentous decision, brought us, to stay with our aunt, her elder sister, in the Doon valley. Us was, mother, an older brother and a younger sister. Father had just lost his prestigious job in a well-known principality, due to the zamindari abolition, and was away knocking on the doors of the Government for a suitable reinstatement, which was his due. We had been told that my mausa (maternal uncle) belonged to the landed gentry, had vast tracts of land, and even owned a tea garden, nestled in the undulating terrain of the Shivalik hills, on the outskirts of Dehradun.
Alas! when we reached the hamlet one rainy winter morn, reality had a different story to tell. The house had certainly seen better days. It was dilapidated and quite run down. It was surrounded by an even more run down garden. A semblance of what purported to be a lawn led up to the façade of the house. But the warm hugs with which we were received, made all the doubts go away, and soon we nestled in quite comfortably. Can’t blame mother, she had our best interests at heart. All she could think of was that our premier education was not disturbed, and Doon offered that, at a throw away price. Typical of mother, I don’t think she had really thought the matter through, and full marks to my aunt who took us in, despite her own sizable family, and the adverse circumstances in which they dwelled. Mum plunged in with her input to boost the family resources and somehow kept the ship afloat. With typical childish resilience, we were oblivious to all the discomforts and under currents and basked in the warmth of their frugal hospitality.
If the house with its crumbling walls, creaking doors and windows; one room was totally abandoned because its roof could cave in at any time; was strange and unsettling, the master of the house, Mausa my uncle, was the piece de resistance. His peculiar manner and appearance did nothing to help rid us of our apprehensions. We eyed him with trepidation as this frail looking man wandered round the house in his rustic attire which comprised of a kurta and homemade shorts. His longish hair was combed back from his forehead and formed two puffs on either side. He was as fair as any westerner, with gaunt cheeks and high cheek bones. His lips were henna hued with the beetle he chewed all day, and his teeth were as dark as sin, with many of them missing. But after a hesitant closer look, the twinkle in his eye belied his daunting appearance, and we were won over finally. It was clear that his bark was worse than his bite. Where at first you tended to side-line him as a nondescript yokel, he bowled you over with his smooth flowing English and stylish accent when he opened his mouth. We gaped in awe and were held spell bound. It definitely smacked of an exclusive education. He spoke with passion and gusto if the topic happened to interest him. We started taking wary steps round his glass cupboard full of books and stared in awe at a faded photograph of him in a suit and tie, hair neatly brushed, with rounded cheeks smiling handsomely at the world. As we got to know him better in the year we stayed with them, never once did he tell us what happened to all the land, the horse and carriage, the servants, or any of the circumstances that landed them on these ill begotten times. The other members too went about their business and never once did we hear a murmur of discontent. We too were drawn into their spell, and it never once entered our heads to question them.
Mausa’s curriculum has me in wonderment to this day and after considerable thought I have come to the conclusion that it could only be contentment to which he had given a whole new dimension. His day unfolded with clockwork precision and never was there a variation. In all our time with them, I never saw him putting a hand to anything else. As soon as the water came in the canal in the morning, pail in hand, he would march outside, armed with his clothes of the previous day. He had two sets of a sky blue shirt and white pyjamas. As the water gushed by, he sat on a stone platform on the canal edge vigorously washing one set till It sparkled with cleanliness. The washing done, he would energetically spread them out on a line by the edge of the lawn to dry. That done, he settled himself on the front veranda, lovingly set out his only pair of black sandals, the ones with overlapping front panels and eye hole for the toe which was considered to be the ultimate in fashion statement. He spent the next half hour giving them a thorough rub down till they gleamed in the midday sun. He then proceeded to heat up an ancient coal iron; there was no electricity available in rural areas; and spread out an ironing blanket on the floor. By now his clothes were almost dry. With great precision he set about ironing the two garments which he did to a fine art, and then left them to be worn later. By then it was almost lunch time and the simple meal was served to him by my aunt on a platter. After a short nap in the afternoon, he awoke with anticipation for the high point of the day, the evening ahead.
This entailed getting into the crisply ironed clothes after a thorough washup. He brushed his hair neatly and donned his gleaming sandals. Satisfied with himself, he picked up his umbrella which stood near the main door, and with a cursory shout to my aunt, jauntily stepped out of the door, with a skip in his stride, embarking on a three mile walk which took him to his child hood friend and class mate’s house, in one of the elite localities of Dehradun. The friend was a leading barrister of the town and on the rare occasion when I saw him, was a neatly turned out man with a dignified personality, and a pleasing countenance. This strange twosome, one firmly anchored in the ways of the world and the other lost in some Neverland, spent their evenings together in benign camaraderie. Was this the essence of true friendship? Uncle had his dinner there every single day and this was the ritual round the year. We were never awake when he got back in the night but as we rushed off to school in the morning we knew another day had dawned. One that would be followed meticulously by uncle with the promise of an evening well spent.
~ Chitra Singh