Chapter 7: Pursuits of other Kinds

 

During some of their winter holidays, Opana's family went to a kothi m the suburbs of Gujranwala. The kothi belonged to Opana's uncle - his mother's sister's husband hamzulf or sandhu to his father. When two men married two sisters they became related in a formal way which cannot be expressed in English or in western terms.

Roles and relationships within the widely extended family and within the endogamous group are not only recognised and differentiated but also carry hierarchical and other social nuances. For example, the brother of one's wife is called sala; the wife's younger sisters are called salis and their husbands are referred to as sandhus or hamzulf. Younger brothers' wives are bhabis and brothers are devars. There is lot of affectionate interactions between devars and bhabis whereas the elder brothers' wives are venerated like mothers. Mother's brothers are mammas and there is always a close kinship between mammas and bhanjas. In the entire system all relationships are named and allotted a hierarchical order. This was of great assistance when the joint families system were in vogue. But with the nuclear families its significance and usage has slowly eroded.

This uncle happened to be a much admired member of the landed gentry. His big house had everything that could delight a youngster's heart. There were large varieties of pigeons: the 'lotans' and the 'lakkas', the carrier pigeons and the racing ones. The lotan is a very pretty pigeon, which starts somersaulting if its head is tapped to give it a slight shake. The children loved watching a vaulting bird and to prevent injury to the bird, four boys hold a bedsheet by its corners, stretched out taut and firm. The bird is then placed on the sheet and given a shake. It starts somersaulting immediately and has to be stopped in a few seconds or else it may vault itself to death. The lakka is again a very pretty bird and it keeps its neck and tail curled up to touch each other, and struts about like a peacock in a trance.

Also, there in the kothi lived the mythical badava or house ghost called Nikkoo. According to legend, the badava is a spirit that can take on any form, human or animal. A number of stories went round about the exploits of the badava of this kothi. These stories were put out by none other than Mama Mula Singh, the faithful retainer in the kothi. He was a very colourful man. It was rumoured that once when one of his patrons had killed a man in a terrible rage, Mula Singh had taken the blame upon himself and gone to jail for it. So, even in jail, he had been kept supplied with very rich food by his fond mother. One day, however, a sentry refused to allow his mother to hand him the food that she had brought. Incensed, Mula Singh who was watching from behind the bars, reached out and grabbed   j the fellow's neck and squeezed it so hard that the poor sentry had to surrender the keys of his cell. Promptly, Mula Singh stepped out of his cell and sitting astride the sentry's prostrate figure, polished off the kheer(rlce pudding) that his mother had brought.

When Mula Singh told his stories about Nikkoo and other ghosts, the children sat enthralled for hours. He told them how one day when he was driving his tonga towards Gujranwala, he suddenly felt the whole cart tilting backwards as if under a heavy load. He turned his head and saw two small twigs lying on the rear seat and guessed j at once that these were, in fact, the two witches who haunted these parts. Quietly he stopped the tonga and walked up to the nearest field, as if going to ease himself, and returned to the tonga without washing himself. He found to his great satisfaction that the twigs were gone, so the witches had left, for of course, as everyone knows, witches do not come near an unclean person. On another occasion, he was carrying fresh milk in his tonga when the witches visited him. Cleverly, he sipped a mouthful of fresh milk and spat it back into the container, making it unclean in order to drive the witches away again. There were times when Nikkoo used to attack him in the.shape of a tiger or a wolf, but would soon change into a whining dog and run away when faced with Mama Mula Singh's hefty stick.

During those holidays, the kothi used to be full of children -brothers, cousins and second cousins of varying ages. Everybody had his or her own group and there was abounding fun. One of the children was a sleep-walker. If pulled up and put on his feet while asleep, he would walk straight on, in the direction they made him face. This boy would be fast asleep when the bed-time drink of hot milk was brought in for all the children. The moment somebody touched him, he would get up, put on his shoes and start walking. Jagga, one of the cousins, once turned his face towards a hedge of prickly bushes and the boy just walked into it. He was brought back and put to bed and fell asleep instantly. The trick was repeated a number of times and the boy repeated his performance every time.

Jagga had once been teased as "Jagga dhagga ", the ox, by Tiboo in the presence of older people. There was nothing Jagga could do immediately, but he waited for an opportunity to get his own back. He got his chance soon enough. He invited Tiboo to accompany him to the shop nearby to buy some sweets and led him to a lonely spot. There he gave him a good beating. He then bought him some sweets and made Tiboo promise not to tell anyone about the beating he had got.

With the family growing, the children needing modern education and all the other compulsions of life, Opana's uncle, like other kothiwalas, had to move to the town to Gujranwala. Thus the city claimed one more of those fine traditional and distinctive families, to knead it into the common humdrum mass of urban society.

Gulloke, Opana's mother's ancestral home, was twenty nine miles away from Daska a pretty long journey in those days. One travelled either on horseback or, in fair weather, by tonga. To ply the tonga on the bank of the canal one had to take permission from the SDO or the ziladar. The route along the main Reya branch of the canal took nearly four to five hours with a break for the mid-day meal at a spot where a feeder canal took off, flowing towards Gulloke. This was a delightful little place. The feeder canal gushed out amidst a cloud of foam and fine spray. The water was shallow and teemed with small fish, droves of which kept close to the canal walls - in their thousands. It was great fun to chase them, catch them and throw them back again into the water. All this went on in between dips and swims and gobbling up some lunch. The two-hour break ended too soon and the tonga would start again along the feeder canal on its last lap towards Gulloke.

Gulloke was built on a small mound that sat in the middle of a vast stretch of marshy and kallar, or saline, land. The land was known for its poisonous snakes, its excellent rice and the swarms of ducks and geese that migrated to its swamps in winter. There was a prixe of eight annas for anyone who brought in the head of a snake and this simple expedient helped to curb the population of these loathsome creatures.

Riding and shikar, or hunting, were the favourite pastimes of Opana's uncles at Gulloke. Eight or nine horses carrying a party of shikaris, riders and eager boys would set out well before dawn for marshes which harboured thousands of teals, mallards and an occasional flight of migrating geese. While the guns went into hideouts the rest of the party circled the swamp trying to scare and flush out the birds. With the first light of daybreak the birds would wade out of the weeds and start frolicking in the small clear pools close to the shikaris'hideouts. The first few shots got these early birds and thereafter the game of frightening the birds and wing-shooting continued up to about mid-morning. The party then gathered its loot, sometimes in hundreds, and started back for the village. Some of the game reached the family kitchen and the rest were sent to all types of petty officials tehsildars, thanedars, school teachers and patwaris'm and around the village. Sometimes, live birds caught in a net were sent to Daska to be distributed among local officials. Opana remembered one occasion when they had tried to keep some of these beautiful birds in a dug-out pit filled with water. But these wild ducks could not take the captivity and languished away.

In Gulloke there was a peculiar ritual of invoking the rain gods to send down rain for the parched lands, especially during drought years. Young girls carried a pair of dolls and marched in procession to a piece of open land under the blistering sun. The gudda-guddi, male and female dolls, were then cremated amidst loud wails and lamentations, the girls beating their chests and dancing around in a circle, calling upon the clouds for rain. The incantation went something like: "was weymianh kalia,guddi-gudda saria" (oh dark clouds send down the rain, I have even burnt my dolls). Legend has it that whenever such invocations were made, the response was immediate and sometimes it began to rain even before the girls could run home. Opana's mother suffered all her life from pain in the joints and the ailment was traced to one such ritual that she had taken part in as a girl. She had been drenched immediately after the dancing and had caught a chill that developed into chronic rheumatic joints.

There was another ritual to call for a breeze upon a hot and sultry evening. They had to recite the names of twelve towns ending with 'pura' - like Sheikhupura, Moghulpura, Baghbanpura etc. The moment all of twelve names had been pronounced one would feel the stir of a breeze.

With the Partition of the country, that part of Punjab where Gulloke stood went to Pakistan. Opana's maternal grandfather and his family had to leave behind their lands, their livelihood and their roots and drift into new surroundings, a new environment and a new society which was devoid of warmth or that sense of belonging. They were not able to put down thejr roots again and were scattered far and wide, sharing the fate of post-partition Punjab.

Decades passed, the landscape changed drastically and yet something mysterious still remained which touched Opana's consciousness when he revisited the place unwittingly some fifty years later.