Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor at Papercuts. Growing up between Sharjah and New Delhi, Pooja has always searched for that which withstands time. The word on the page, the music in the sky, mental mathematics. A post-graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram, Delhi University, Pooja spent 13 years building the critically acclaimed arts and culture magazine, First City; first as a writer and then as an editor. Pooja is currently pursuing her writing and editing career as a freelancer, working with publishing houses and authors, helping shape manuscripts such that they achieve their best potential. Her first book, Red Lipstick: The Men in my Life, a literary-styled memoir chronicling the personal life story of transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, was published by Penguin-Randomhouse in August 2016. Pooja lives with her husband and six-year-old daughter in New Delhi, India. She’s still seeking a few answers on Time, Eternity and the likes, but she’s getting there.
Biting the Bullet: Your Folklore is my Grandma’s Tale
There’s something about being buried that doesn’t seem to invoke closure.
It’s like you could always come back.
This was pretty much the gist of the story as far as I understood it after several re-tellings by my Nani. I was growing up and increasingly becoming utterly fixated on scary stories instead of being terrified by them. Or maybe they’re both the same thing?
My Nani, a freedom fighter and bohemian child extraordinaire from a long foregone era, had a habit of nursing secrets that were stories, and stories that were secrets. All those years of participating in the underground revolution – being a member of an undercover team, distributing pamphlets with information about the next meeting of the extremists or a Gandhi session – had settled on her like a second skin. Keeping nefarious, treacherous, dangerous secrets closely guarded, was almost a personality trait of hers by the time I came around. (I’d call it a habit if habit weren’t such a banal word, reeking of boring everyday rituals.)
By the time she took on the mantle of Storyteller Par Excellence, at least in my eyes, she had developed this trait into a skill; the oral equivalent of the page-turner. “What happened next?” we would squeal, my brother and I, leaning in, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her two-room flat in Bombay – a space that Nani could transform into a forest, a palace, a bhool bhoolaiyyan, a cluster of caves, a warrior’s den, a stage, depending on the story she chose to tell that day – and she would give us that playful, mysterious look that said, “It’s a Secret. Shall I tell you?”
One muggy Matunga day, she told us That Story.
The one that topped the list of Stories Repeated Often. And became the stuff of our personal folklore.
“When Bahadur died, the house went into mourning. Not just my family – father, mother, my brothers and sisters, the little baby who had begun to cry more than usual – but also the house itself. It was as if the spaces he had inhabited for so many years were thirsting for him, now that he was gone. The nooks and crannies he’d hid in when playing hide and seek with us, the impossible corners he’d squeezed into to get rid of invisible dirt specks, the walls he’d hung up old portraits on, the divan he’d fluffed old lodhs on – bringing them to the perfect state of comfortable as desired by my grandfather – were missing him sorely, now that he was gone. Old houses have such a way of embracing their people, of shape-shifting so as to take the form of those who used to inhabit and love them. Even after those people are long gone.
The house nursed this pain of loss when Bahadur died.
But it was the backyard that ached for him the most.
The backyard was huge – I remember finding it huge even during my visits after marriage, when memory had otherwise become a joke because the rest of the house, I thought, had considerably shrunk in proportions.
There was an old hand pump in the corner that had duly served generations in the house. Bahadur would work it to fill giant, brass cauldrons with fresh water, which was then used for washing the clothes, cooking, cleaning, bathing, and when heated to the right temperature, for garam sekai (hot fomentation) to ease the pain in the small of Dadi’s back. My father, pehelwan supremo, who used to run his akhara (wrestling school) when the sun was out, and wine and dine with Lord James Corbett when the moon reigned supreme, had marked out one cauldron for his personal post-fight-wash use only. Bahadur was the only one who could pick this cauldron out from among the army of them lined up in the backyard. He could probably pick it out blindfolded.
Bahadur had his stories too. When he had time on his hands – a rare occurrence – he would have us all sit down in the baawarchi khaana (kitchen) in the interim hours between lunch and chhota hazaari (evening tea) when it was lying vacant, our arms and legs folded, rapt with attention listening to Bahadur recount stories of valour and honour and loyalty and pride. They would almost always be stories of British oppression, and they would almost always have one solitary hero at their core – a brave warrior by the name of… Bahadur.
Bahadur would tell us how he used to be a jawan in the Gorkha battalion and how he rose up the ranks to face the country’s mortal enemies – our gora rulers. Sometimes, the stories were even more incredulous: Bahadur had not risen up the ranks, but had still managed to lead his men to a victory of some kind. He would enact entire scenes at times, if he was in a particularly upbeat mood – getting down on his haunches or lying flat on his stomach, pretending to crouch through the bushes, pointing a kadhchi that was posing as a rifle aimed sharp at the imaginary enemy. And this one Sunday when everyone had left town to attend a wedding, Bahadur threw caution to the wind and charged at the army that in his vision was always somewhere behind us children, screaming ‘Ayo Gorkhali,’ at the top of his lungs.
We spoke about that Sunday for months after.
When the more petulant among the children – mostly, me (Nani would always say this part with a naughty smile) – would question his claims, he would pretend to be angry and we would needle him until the inevitable happened, the moment we would all wait for with bated breath, hoping that today would be the day! Bahadur would recede to his quarters in a half-baked rage, muttering under his breath, and come back to the giggling, riddling-with-anticipation crowd of children and present before them that one big piece of evidence in his favour: his infantry uniform. An oddity of a thing in that kitchen in Khotachi Wadi that had only seen minor skirmishes between the young daughters-in-law who would spend their early mornings preparing mounds of dry coconut-garlic chutney, cleaning the fish, peeling the potatoes, and kneading the dough, before the oldest bahu would step in. The khaki brown uniform with its hints of red, worn and old, but not dirty – he would tell us that he washed it regularly, patting it lovingly, like a pet – was only too real, speaking of real wars. There was only one flaw in this celebrated piece of clothing – it had a gaping hole right on its breast pocket. When I would joke about the rats that had eaten it up, Bahadur would silence me by saying, ‘Nahi, Gudiya. Bullet hai.’ I remember poking at the hole in the tunic repeatedly one day, asking him how he could be alive today if that was a bullet hole, because it was so close to the heart. I can never forget the look in his eyes and that wry smile he gave me in response.
It was a smile that generations of Kothares had seen. Or so it would seem, since Bahadur was nothing, if not ageless. My Mama had stories about him too, as did Baba’s chelas in the akhara, and they were recalled from days of childhood. Bahadur, it would appear, had always been around. Just like the house.
And so it was that when our aide, our more-than-Man-Friday, our friend and confidant, actually died, the house went into mourning.
Bahadur was buried in a quiet ceremony that only had the immediate family attend – which was about 50 people – and I now see how unconventional that was, because even the children were attending. Baba was of the opinion that since he had been so important to us children and had done his part in our upbringing, we should be allowed to say goodbye to him properly. Maa and Dadi and even my father’s older brother had opposed this vehemently right until the end. And yet there we were, that muggy morning, watching a few men – Baba’s chelas – digging a hole, a big hole, and after they’d laid him to rest inside it, working, patting the mitti gently, lovingly. I still remember the beads of sweat trickling down their noses, mingling with the tears streaming down the sides of their cheeks, all washed down by that sudden and peculiar Bombay drizzle.
I don’t remember bidding him farewell. I didn’t know what to say to a grave. I thought about leaving my rag doll on it, as a mark of affection of some sort – she was after all, the reason I had earned that pet name. A name that everyone would call me by, but only Bahadur had a range of tones in which he said it. There was an angry-bark ‘Gudiya’, there was a soft, indulgent, playful ‘Gudiya’, and a few more.”
This was usually the point at which Nani would pause and decide to take care of the household chores she’d been neglecting all day – occupied as she’d been telling me and my brother stories – and we would follow her around as she put the daal to boil, kneaded the dough, sorted out the bills, because “You can’t eat stories, can you?” she would mock-chide us.
We were all practiced in this art by now. We knew this was the page-turner moment and we would keep pestering Nani to let us in on the “secret”. Sometimes we had to break for the actual lunch, sometimes she would get us to revise our paadhas (multiplication tables) before she continued. And I’m serious when I say there were days when I would tell her, “Arre Nani, chhodo yeh sab. I can really eat this story! Please continue.”
Our Storyteller would relent most days and pick up the threads of the story once again. The weak rain of the graveyard scene would cut to a particularly breezy day.
“I was out playing in the far end of the mud pit one day – something Baba had always warned us against, because the akhara to him was nothing short of a temple – and when my bravado left me, all I could think about was not being caught. I had to somehow get the dirt off me, my clothes, it was even in my fingernails! It was early evening and soon the women would be stirring about preparing snacks and tea, and I had only a few minutes to clean myself up. I tiptoed to the back of the house, very quietly, and entered the backyard.
The light was always weak here and at first I thought it was some kind of light trick. I had many a time seen dust do a fascinating dance in this light, coupled with a strange gust of wind. But this couldn’t be a mere trick of the light, could it? The hairs on the back of my neck were rising even as I heard that unmistakable war cry in my ears – the one that had marked a Sunday special for life – ‘Ayo Gorkhali!’. I thought about turning back, but my feet were rooted to the spot just like in one of those bad dreams. I was standing next to Baba’s favorite cauldron, almost in the corner where the hand pump was, where a minute ago, I’d been hoping to wash myself up before anyone could get a whiff of what I’d been up to. And I knew it wasn’t a trick. There was a knot in my throat now because yes, there he was. Bahadur. I wasn’t sure at first because it was the first time I’d actually seen him wearing it. The uniform with that gaping hole.”
Photo by Moz Rauf
Nani had different versions of this story – sometimes the backyard would become the chhath (terrace), her father’s older brother would become her mother’s brother, and Nani’s own forbidden muddy frolic would become a stolen one rupee note – and they all seemed equally valid to her.
What never changed, of course, was Bahadur himself. The fact of his death. And the fact of his coming back. Or having never left, I’m not sure which.
They built the contours of stories for me, for life – Bahadur’s tale, Nani’s versions, Nani herself, the Raj. Of storytelling too. Of how closure can be the stuff of fantasy. And death itself the ultimate folklore.