Josna Rege

108. Climb Over the Wall!

In 1980s, India, Stories on April 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm

January, 1984: Andrew and I were on our honeymoon trip to India, visiting each and every one of my relatives, who welcomed Andrew into the family with open arms. We were now trying to meet up with Tai-atya, my father’s eldest sister, who we thought was in Delhi, staying with my cousin Jayant. But when we reached Delhi, Jayant was out of town and so, it seemed, were Tai-atya and Banawalikar-kaka. So instead, we got a hotel room in Delhi, visited the family of our dear friend Subhash, and made train reservations for Kanpur (not an easy task back in those days), where our elders would be staying with my cousin Vijay. Everything was set, and Vijay-dada was to meet us at the station; but that night everything seemed to go wrong.

The train was late. We arrived at Kanpur Central Railway Station quite late at night and couldn’t find Vijay-dada anywhere. (Later, it turned out that he had been there looking everywhere for us but in vain.) Wearily, we hailed an auto rickshaw, whose driver, upon hearing the address, had to be talked into accepting us: apparently, the Sales Tax Office was in a distant suburb several kilometers away.

Indian addresses, many-layered palimpsests of history and culture, can be difficult to decode. Even now, nearly sixty-five years after Independence, there is often the British street name, paired with the new(er), or newly restored Indian one, followed by a nearby landmark, such as “behind Odeon Cinema). In this case it was “opposite Sales Tax Office.” Some half-an-hour later the rickshaw-wala, tired and visibly irritated at the prospect of his long return journey, told us that we had arrived at the address we had given him. We were in a pitch-dark residential neighborhood with high walls enclosing the compounds. He made to offload our luggage, but we pleaded with him to wait until we could be sure that we were at the right place. He pointed impatiently to the Sales Tax Office and then to the walled compound opposite, but there was no sign of life anywhere and no identifying names on the gate—or indeed, any of the gates of the adjacent compounds. By now the rickshaw-wala was skeptical about us. I had told him that my cousin-brother lived here, but since neither I nor my husband looked Indian to him, he seriously doubted my word. He just wanted to get paid and out of there as soon as possible. Finally he threw down the gauntlet: “If you really are his sister, then climb over the wall!”

I looked helplessly at the forbidding wall with nothing but silence and darkness on either side and then back at the rickshaw-wala, but he was adamant. If we were not to be abandoned with all our luggage on an empty street in a remote neighborhood of a strange city, there was nothing for it but to take up his challenge. So I screwed up my courage, throwing fear, caution, and womanly modesty to the winds, and climbed.

I dropped to the ground on the other side, fully expecting to be lunged at by a pack of snarling dogs. Thankfully, dogs were nowhere to be seen, but neither was anything or anyone else. As I began to get my bearings and my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I saw a flickering light beside and to the back of the big house and made my way towards it. Finally I came upon a small group of men, servants probably, squatting comfortably round an open fire, chatting. I stepped out of the shadows and spoke to them in my halting, schoolgirl Hindi, explaining that I had come from Amreeka, naming my cousin, and asking if this was his house. They all started in terror as if they had seen an apparition. It  must have seemed to them that I had just materialized from nowhere—perhaps straight from America itself. At first they seemed unable to process the sounds emanating from my mouth as words, but finally one of them recognized Vijay-dada’s name, led me to the big house, and hammered on the front door. Eventually my cousin and his wife opened it, rubbing their eyes in sleepiness and surprise, but welcoming us lovingly nonetheless. After a light meal and a warm, milky drink, we dropped into the bed that had been made ready for us and fell asleep instantly. What a relief!

RBTB Hospital Compound, Delhi

It turned out that Tai-atya and Kaka were not in Kanpur after all but back in Delhi. So in the morning we made reservations for a return journey to Delhi the very next day, where at last we met up with them and had a lovely visit. Tai-atya plied us with her delicious home cooking and Banawalikar-kaka regaled us with stories over endless rounds of tea (I am a teetotaller, he chuckled jovially—totally tea!).

It turned out to have been fortunate that we returned to Delhi at that time, because soon after our return to the United States, dear Tai-atya passed away, carried off by a sudden brain fever. I remember the visit in every detail, from the terror of facing the climb over the compound wall to the tiny smudge of turmeric on my sari blouse from Tai-atya’s haldi-kumkum blessing, hastily pressed on my forehead as we took our leave from her. In this case I am grateful that turmeric leaves a permanent stain: I would not wish it otherwise.

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  1. That was very nostalgic. I never got to meet Tai Atya as she passed soon after I was born. It is indeed wonderful to hear so fondly about a relative that one has never had an opportunity to meet.

    • Dear Pinu, I’m glad you liked it. Tai-atya was a lovely person and I’m glad I was able to meet her, even though it was only for that short visit. (We had met when I was very small, but I don’t remember that.) She completes the picture of the three sisters and the second-eldest after Anna-kaka. I also have a special feeling for Tai-atya because my father often says that I remind him of her.

  2. Yet another wonderful story, complete with a hilarious midnight climb and terror of the dark and unknown other side! What a good storyteller you are, Jojo! I could picture the whole thing in vivid
    detail! How lovely that you were able to visit your beloved Tai-atya at such a timely point in her life!
    I feel as though I had been there myself!

    • Thank you, Marianne, and I’m glad I was able to convey some of that hair-raising experience. But as much as I remember that night, I remember even more the joy of meeting with relatives whom I hadn’t seen for more than twenty years.

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