Chapter 4: The Unforgettable Daska


Holidays always ended too soon and the family would return to Daska where Opana's father had his practice as a lawyer. For the journey back, Chanda Seth's tonga would be hired and they would pile into the horse-drawn carriage to start on the bumpy ride from Kandan Sian to the town. Chanda Seth did not have clothes enough to cover his body but he was so fond of his mare that he spent more than half his earnings on jt. Punjabi humour was a typical blend of irony and affection. A poor man who could hardly keep body and soul together was called seth, or rich man. Similarly, someone who was so weak that he found even walking a trial, was called pehlwan, or wrestler. Chanda Seth was a very pious man and went into ecstasies at the very mention of his guru's name — Satguru Ramgir. It was very unsafe even to utter the name of his guru while riding in his tonga, for nobody could tell what would happen thereafter.

The journey to town took two hours. The road was potholed and dusty but never having known better roads, everybody jolted merrily along. Chanda Seth had his own way with his horse - man and horse sharing such perfect understanding that they seemed to be talking to each other. Later on, when a private bus service was introduced from Daska to Kandan Sian, doing away with the horse cart, half the fun of the holiday was missed.

Back home in Daska, the family house was a big sprawling, old-fashioned single storied house known as 'Bhagel Singh ki kothi'. Nobody had the faintest idea as to who this Bhagel Singh had been, but the house stood in spacious grounds, quite barren and dusty, except in the monsoons when it became green and slippery. There were only two trees, one jamun and one mango, in the inner compound. The Jamun tree bore fruit in season but the mango tree was barren. Once, on the advice of somebody, a large pile of small fish was fed to the roots of the mango tree but the only result it produced was a nauseating stench for days afterwards. To the east of the house there was a small factory that made metal trunks, then a dhaba selling local meals and further a dirty pool with a few stalls selling vegetable and fruit. Beyond, lay the road. To the north lay an open spacious ground, with the bazaar beyond it. Access to the bazaar was through a narrow lane cluttered with piles of debris and stinking of urine. To the west was the refuse heap (roori), the house of Kundan the local goldsmith or suniara, and further up was the village lane running through the little homes on both sides. To the south was a low-lying, overgrown open space, agurudwara beyond and the house where Dulla lived with his father or perhaps a relative, who was a tonga driver.

Dulla was not a boy one could forget easily. He was a perfect scoundrel, a bully and daredevil. He lived in this small shack and never went to school. His most prized asset was a hard and cleanshaven head. For the price of a coin he would perform his special feat: taking a good ten yards start he would run headlong to bang his head against any wall. You could hear the thud of skull on brick a hundred yards away, but it did not seem to affect Dulla: he would pocket his coin and move quietly away. For the price of one paisa anybody was allowed to grab him by the ear and he would then pull his head free without using his hands. He was a good wrestler and was the ustad or tutor of the boys' akhara, a group of amateur wrestlers.

The open space to the north was the common playground for all the children in the neighbourhood as also a place for religious gatherings and venue for the annual Ram Lila celebrations. It had a small wrestling pit in which the boys spent the evening in friendly wrestling bouts, or playing shtapoo and kabaddi. There was no mingling of sexes. Boys and girls kept strictly apart and played their own games and kept their own company.

Daska was a queer town in many ways. It boasted of a high school, a dak bungalow, a very badly rutted road which ran from Gujranwala to Sialkot and a large open ground in which British regiments in Sialkot held their annual camp. The population was made up of many communities - Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians who lived generally in harmony, but for occasional outbursts of antagonism. To all appearances it was like any other town elsewhere in India - feeding,

living, breeding. There was, however, a hard streak of cruelty and a vicious intolerance of any departure from whatever was deemed 'normal' in human conduct. The slightest oddity or whimsical conduct brought scathing public scorn. Nobody could afford to make a mistake, for even a single slip could start a chain reaction with the offender being branded 'queer' and subjected to even closer scrutiny ever after. It could drive a man to nervous breakdown. There were living examples of such maligned men in the town: Chunilal, Jima, Daula Tilli, Baba Naloo - all victims of such trials. Chunilal was forever invoking the mighty Shiva, the Lord of Kailash, "to dig Daska out by the roots" and destroy the wretched people. Jima ran around throwing stones at urchins who taunted him and they, on their part, dogged his steps relentlessly. Daula Tilli tore off his clothes at the slightest provocation. Baba Naloo moaned and cried for the love of his nonexistant sweetheart Naloo. Another impoverished school master lost balance when his wife died and started wearing her clothes — so as to wear them out. Wherever he went into town, loud jeers of "vohti suif (a man wearing his wife's clothes) followed him. He ended up as a lunatic. The town had a strong streak of sadism and an irrepressible urge for interfering in other's affairs. It permitted no secrets, with so many eyes busy prying into every nook of every life.

Across road from the firewood stall run by Jamala the hatoo from Kashmir, was the Muslim locality. Kuba who lived there, was a classmate of Opana. He had moved in here from Bihar with his old mother and a sister, after his father's death. His elder brothers still lived in Bihar where they had work. His sister, at that time, must have been about sixteen years old and was a very pretty and attractive girl. Although he knew little yet about affairs of the heart, Opana found himself acting as nama bar, or emissary of love, between her and a local young man. The perfumed envelopes he was given to carry back and forth excited and intrigued him and quite often, secretly, hiding on the back-stairs he would read these letters. They were written in Urdu, the very language of love, and were full of such things as vows of everlasting love, pangs of separation and pledges of fidelity. Beautiful couplets dedicated to beauty, love, faithfulness and romance were quoted back and forth by the two lovers.

This kind of romance - gazing at each other across the rooftops, writing love letters to pour out one's heart, reciting poems and couplets without ever having walked with or touched the hand of the beloved — was a common feature of small-town life and love in Punjab. Social taboo, family prestige, caste and religion always stood on guard and the idea of marrying for love or by choice was unheard of. The lovers of course knew all along the sheer futility of their romance but carried on with the game, perhaps to signal their coming of age and to brag about it among friends. Parents were quick to come down heavily, especially on the girls, and hastened to arrange a marriage and pack off a restless daughter to her new home. The new status and environment, the household chores and the fond attentions of the husband helped the girl greatly and generally the arrangement became a great success. Puppy love soon forgotten, the boy turned to some other girl till he himself was found a bride by his parents. Subsequently, if the erstwhile young lovers met socially, they greeted each other as brother and sister. Opana's letter-writers were no exception and went their separate ways into arranged marriages and then to live their lives'in two different countries — Pakistan and India.

Rama Mota's pakora shop stood in the middle of the Qaber Bazaar, the main shopping centre of Daska. It was named so because it looked like a long grave or quabar. During reconstruction under the direction of the Municipal Committee President, they had given the raised ground a steep slope on all sides. It used to become very slippery during the rains and many unfortunate persons found themselves in the gutters into which the steep cambered slope descended. The poor man cursed the Committee from his hapless position, much to the amusement of the onlookers. Before the reconstruction, the ground had had its normal ruts and hollows, just like any Indian bazaar, where the filth and stagnant water bred and collected flies and mosquitoes vying with one another for the territory. In those days, a cleverly placed peel of banana or mango provided the desired entertainment but now the bazaarwallahs had no need to resort to such artifices.

Rama Mota, supporting a five-foot girth and five maunds of bulk, sat in his shop in all majesty, apparently quite absorbed in ceaseless grinding and mixing the grain paste for his fries, but his quick alert eyes missed nothing. He was the very soul of mischief and nobody escaped his taunt while crossing through the bazaar. His booming voice and loud laugh was die first to declare "oh gaya re", here goes another, when someone slipped or made a mistake. The refrain was taken up by others and soon a crowd would gather around the discomfited person who had to muster all his dignity and equanimity to ward off more teasing. If he walked away quietly and unhurried, without a mutter, he was spared further taunts and allowed to go. The slightest show of temper, however, would bring the jeering crowd upon him and it would be a lucky man to come out unscathed.

Endless were the jokes current about Rama Mota. Of the five feet of his girth, three would be hanging in front as the famous belly. They said that the protrusion served as a useful stand for odd pots and pans and other hardware of his trade. It was even said that if you happened to pass his shop, you could safely deposit your bags on his overhanging front to proceed with your other jobs in the bazaar and collect them all on your way back — a sort of cloakroom for customers. And then, the constant heat of his oven had made him so heatproof that he could pull out a pakora or two from hot oil with his bare hands.

He was a good swimmer and his bloated stomach kept him afloat like a balloon, so much so that it needed two strong persons bearing down with all their weight to immerse the whole of him in water. All the same, he made excellentyoj/roras, dahi wadas&nA other savouries difficult to match. He plied his trade unrivalled and unchallenged.

Like all fat men he was a jolly fellow. It was he who ushered in the Holi celebrations, dressed up as a bear. Maunds of blackened cottonwool was stuck on to his body with quantities of glue till man disappeared and bear emerged. A mask completed the transformation

There were two champion pigeon-breeders in Daska: 'Bashira Buddi Da' (son of the old woman) and Rachhpal Singh. Both owned some excellent breeds and were competitors. Rearing of pigeons and holding bird races held a great fascination among the people. In olden days the pursuit was associated with lazy and rich Nawabs. Now it had become the hobby of penniless aristocrats and the dadas, or ring leaders.

To start off the race, pigeons are let loose, all at the same time. They take wing and remain in flight for a number of hours and then descend to their own perches. The bird that remains in the air for the longest is the winner. These birds have a very strong homing instinct and yet sometimes they make an error of judgment and descend to a perch other than their own. They are sometimes misguided deliberately by other pigeon-keepers who, on noticing a stray pigeon flying over their area bring out their own birds and get them to fly up and down. They also put out water and grain to attract the hungry and thirsty one that has lost its way. The lost pigeon circles overhead once or twice as if to make sure, and then comes down. Then starts a lively game of dodging and trickery. The pigeon has to be made to feel at home and lured towards the water with the keeper remaining inconspicuous but very close. Catching a pigeon is best done over water. Pigeons usually drink deep and are oblivious to their surroundings. As soon as the pigeon mounts the kunali— the flat earthenware vessel holding the water, the catcher creeps up stealthily and just as the bird dips its beak into the water he grabs it. Its wings are then either clipped or tied and it is let off with the others to carry on as a part of the new set-up. A pigeon thus captured is considered legitimate property of the catcher and is used as a strong bargaining counter to reclaim similar catches from the other party. Amounts rising to a hundred rupees or so have been offered to claim a cherished pet — a good breeder or a good racer.

 Pigeons, in flight, are sometimes claimed by the big birds of prey like the kite, turmchior hawks. Some keepers literally go mad when this happens to a beloved bird and they wander about with a gun in search of the predator birds. Anguished pigeon-lovers have watched these incidents helplessly. Against the deep blue sky the lone pigeon, chased by a hunter, makes every kind of manoeuvre to throw off its pursuer - diving, wheeling and skirting. People whistle and shout to frighten away the marauder but normally the drama is played at such a height that none of these are of much avail. If it escapes it will return to its perch, but more often than not only its feathers slowly descend and spread over a wide circle on the ground.

Connoisseurs assess a bird's potential for racing and flying from the colour and shape of its eyes. A large black pupil circled by a fine ring of sheer white belongs to the best and a small pupil set in a reddish ring indicates the lowest. In between these two types there are innumerable variations and combinations. Pedigrees are valued and the birds are mated selectively to cull the better traits .of both parents or to produce a special colour combination in the progeny. The shah-sjra, a pigeon which has a black head and a pure white body and jaun-sira, a black and white head with pure white body, are some pedigree names. Bird lovers also use jhanjhars — jingling bangles made of brass or even silver — as ornaments on the legs of their birds and you can hear the tinkle of these when the birds strut about or when they turn somersaults on the roof tops. It is music to the ears of their keepers who can tell the pigeon by name from the sound it creates. KabutarBazi was a fascinating hobby and a sport but began losing its appeal as the pace of life got faster and people had less and less time to "stand and stare".