How our villages and small towns are rapidly changing not only in their face but sadly in their heart and soul also... how the vulnerable sections of the society are unsettled... and with that how our inherently good old values are vanishing too... Read on, to see a type... Ed.
As I got down of the bus with my ten year-old son, at Rampura bus station, I was touched with surprise. I was in Rampura after twenty years and I had expected changes but not of this magnitude. The bus station that I had last witnessed as a small unpaved patch of land surrounded by green fields, was now a large enclosure surrounded by brick and cement structures. And there was a pell-mell of vehicles - two-wheelers, cars, jeeps and buses. I clearly remembered that during my student days in Rampura high school, there used to be a very few vehicles, mostly state owned old, rickety Roadways buses. Waiting for passengers, those buses looked forlorn on that patch of land and as they left, leaving behind a cloud of dust, the station would be deserted.
'You said it is a small town!' my son asked pulling on my coat sleeve.
'It is still a small town, if you go by the size of our cities and towns, though it definitely has grown bigger since I left it twenty years ago.
'You never came back during twenty years?'
'Well…,' I said looking for answers.
'Why you never came Daddy?' He still needed answers. 'You said this was the town where you grew up as a student. You said you had friends here, but you never thought of meeting them!'
I had grown up in Rampura; I had friends here and had memories of adolescent life. I often thought of them during my initial years in the city and some of the faces were still fresh in my mind. But I never came back to Rampura since passing my high school. Probably, I was one of those who grow up in small towns and once the town grew smaller or their dreams grew bigger they flew away to bigger places, better destinations. And I had come to a bigger city, where I now lived with my family, my work, my new set of friends and acquaintances. Now, here in Rampura, if I passed by some of my old school friends, we might not even recognise one another. Twenty years was a long time and harshness of life covered our adolescent faces under unrecognisable crusts of age. Even if we were able to recognise one another, we might not have many words to say, and after an initial glimmer of a long lost friendship, we would again turn strangers. We could even feel uneasy facing one another, in our grown up garbs and the youthful memories could become awkward instances of the past.
Memories could be uncomfortable as they keep haunting us and knowing well that they are things of past, long forgone, we still try to preserve them deep inside us, to the point that they become uncomfortable, like a chronically nagging ache. And it was this nagging that brought me here, to Rampura, which I had forgotten for the past twenty years. As I saw my son growing, as I enjoyed watching his playfulness and unbounded curiosity, something ached inside me - my own childhood, my years of growing up. And the small town of Rampura started growing inside me. And one day when the mild nagging turned painful, to the surprise of my wife and my friends, I took the bus along with my son to my ancestral village, a couple of kilometres distance from Rampura.
I could have come alone, but I wanted my son to see the places where I had grown up when I was his age. I wanted to make the place a part of his memory as well, even if a very miniscule part. But seeing the changes in Rampura, I suddenly felt at a loss for words, almost a loss of memory. What was I looking for? What was I going to tell my son? I myself didn't know a thing about these changes; they were never a part of my memory. And if I had to tell him something that no more existed, I could have done that in the city, in the comfort of our living room.
'Daddy, tell me something about the town. You had promised me a lot of stories.' My son was a new generation kid who remembered well what the parents had promised.
'There will be stories son. Don't you worry.' I assured him as we walked along the roads, dodging the traffic.
Out of the enclosed area that was the bus station, a number of alleys sprouted in all directions. These lanes were full of people and vehicles and a cacophonous noise erupted, as we squeezed our way through. To keep my son's questioning at a bay, I bought him some local sweets that worked as distraction for him as we walked around.
Despite being surprised at this quick growth and metamorphic change of Rampura, I was sure that the Buddha Bazaar would still be the same. Buddha Bazaar, a long narrow cobblestone street, was the oldest market steet in Rampura. Houses with carved wooden balconies stood on both sides of the street. While the ground level of these houses were shops, the upper levels were used as living quarters. The bazaar had seen many ups and downs and had witnessed the decades pass by. During its heydays, when the motor road had still not come to Rampura, the Buddha Bazaar was the main overnight destination for the pilgrims on their way to the shrines in high mountains or for those returning from the shrines. Those days were its most glorious days. The clatter of the hoofs of ponies on the cobblestones; the relieved chatter of the pilgrims safely back from the trecherous mountaneous routes; and the happy, profit-loving friendliness of the trading community filled the bazaar with a rich medieval aura.
But by the time I started school in Rampura, those glorious days of Buddha Bazaar were on the decline. The buses had connected the pilgrimage centres directly with the larger towns. And Rampura had lost its character, from being an important place for overnight sojourn to a small town market. And as the traders dismayingly watched the buses carrying the pilgrims beyond their reach, the Buddha Bazaar had started languishing into a gradual decline.
Still, during those days it was the main trading centre for the nearby villages and retained the razzle-dazzle of a small town market. Parts of my days were spent with my schoolmates in the tea stalls. There was nothing remarkable about those hours spent in the shops of Buddha Bazaar except that it was the way we grew in that part of the world with a sheer languid idleness. And it was that idleness that had remained the strongest part of my memory.
'Let's go to the real market son, which I know the best.' I said finally turning in direction of Buddha Bazaar that was just about fifty meters beyond the enclosed bus station. The old banyan tree still stood guard near the entrance, though most of its once luxurious branches had been chopped to give space to the houses that had come up in the vicinity. As we entered the bazaar, our shoes making noise against the cobblestones, I felt the same languid idleness gripping me, though it felt sadder and ancient. Unlike the newer parts of Rampura, it was quiet here, a very few people in the street. Most of the shops were empty or with very little things. The residential quarters looked aged and worn out too, their colours faded.
It was this Buddha Bazaar of Rampura that was growing inside me and had made me come here, after all the twenty years. And now, what was left here to tell my son? Which part of my memory could I possibly share with him?
'This looks boring. There is nothing interesting. What did you do here when you were young?' My son said, not impressed by the sadness and decay.
'Well, son, there was something in Buddha Bazaar, something …,' I said, again looking for explanations.
'I don't see anything in here, in these old crumbling shops. That side of the market, where we first went, was much lively and interesting than this. And you don't even seem to recognise anyone here, not even a single face.'
We were climbing a flight of stairs and I felt a bit at loss for my idea of sharing a part of my memory with my son. And there, I saw the board on top of an old shop, 'Ramlal Tailor'. And I was transported straight back to my school days.
Those days, Ramlal was known as the best tailor in Rampura. He could easily follow the newest trends in fashion. There were other tailors as well, but getting clothes stitched by Ramlal used to be a privilege. And Ramlal because of the 'best tailor' tag attached to him was dictatorial, especially with the school children. Those were the days of bell-bottoms and we wanted ankles of our pants wider and wider. But Ramlal always had his own ways: 'No way! Forty inches wide is more than required for a girl's skirt, not a boy's pant.' He would say firmly. And finally with a lot of haggling, and we almost on verge of tears, he would relent at thirty-two inches. We hated Ramlal for this attitude, but always ended up going to him to get our clothes stitched. With a few assistants around, Ramlal's shop used to be in full bloom. The board 'Ramlal Tailor' used to be freshly painted.
But today as I looked at the board, its colours were all gone and even the tin had rusted and it hung precariously on an equally rusted wire. Inside, the shop looked dismal, with empty showcases, their glass panels broken. And there on an old blackened cushion sat a lonesome figure with a very old sewing machine. At one glance I recognised Ramlal, now frail and aged.
'I know him son, I know him.' I suddenly got excited; finally a part of my childhood memory was beckoning me from the shop. But my son did not look impressed and dragged his feet, following me into the shop.
Seeing us entering the shop, Ramlal tried to gather himself, but there was no enthusiasm evident in that effort.
'Yes, Babuji, please come in,' he said in a weak voice that clearly lacked the authoritativeness of the earlier days.
'Ramlalji, I am …' I gave him my introduction. He seemed to try hard to recognise me but could not do so. I did not want to give my son another chance to comment about nobody knowing me in Rampura and quickly added. 'Remember, you stitched a coat for me. I am …' I gave him name of my father and that of my village to help him draw a clearer picture.
'Oh, yes, yes,' he said his old lined up face suddenly flashing with pleasure. 'But, you left a long time ago and never came back. So much has changed in these years.' He let out a deep sigh.
That was my final year of high school and my father had bought a piece of cloth for my coat. It was a lovely piece of tweed, soft and warm. As the cloth piece was bigger than required for my size, my mother had instructed me to get it loosely stitched so that I did not outgrow it in a couple of years time. And when I came home, happily wearing the newly stitched coat, my mother was furious. 'That bloody Ramlal has done his deed again. He again saved the cloth for himself.' She had fumed. Had it been a usual piece of cloth, perhaps she would not have taken it that seriously, because the coat still fitted nicely, but it was expensive fabric and she was determined to do the justice.
And next day she had marched me to Rampura, into the cobblestone street of Buddha Bazaar, and into the shop of Ramlal who was sitting unaware, his five-year-old son on his lap wearing a coat stitched out of the same fabric as of my coat. A scene had ensued. My mother needed no more evidence, no more explanations and had called Ramlal names. His son looked from one face to another, unable to understand the cause of the whole trouble. And once my mother was satisfied with the verbal outburst, she had declared that to teach Ramlal a lesson for his dishonest conduct, she was not going to pay him the stitching charges. And Ramlal, his head lowered, had accepted. The authoritative Ramlal, whom we had disliked for his dictates, had for once looked vulnerable.
The same vulnerability was apparent in Ramlal now and it did not appear just the outcome of old age. We sat there silently for few minutes, not knowing what to say.
'Where is your son Ramlal? He must be married by now?' Finally gathering some clues I asked him.
He looked at me for few seconds and told that his son no more lived in Rampura. 'Because so much has changed here, now people hardly wear clothes stitched by us, the old-hand tailors. The shops in the newer part of Rampura, get readymade clothes from the garment factories and that's what the people wear.'
His son had tried to run the shop for a few years but finally gave up and went to the nearby city in search of employment. And after a few years he took his wife and children as well. And now they hardly came back to Rampura. Once or twice a year, a letter came with a few lines about their well being and explaining the struggles of city life. That was the only contact Ramlal had with his son.
We again sat there in silence. My son had started getting restless.
'Can you still stitch Ramlal? Can you stitch a coat for my son?' I suddenly asked.
Ramlal looked at me with surprise, a faint smile appeared on his toothless face.
'It will be a great pleasure for me to stitch a coat for baba,' he said pointing to my son, 'but I am old now, and my tailoring is old fashioned and baba would not like it.'
'No, no, it will be good Ramlal. I will bring the fabric for his coat. Whatever way you stitch, it will look good on him.' I said almost pleadingly.
Out of the shop, my son looked at me complainingly, 'But Daddy, I don't want to wear a coat stitched by him.'
'I know son, I know, but I want him to stitch a coat for you, whether you wear it or not!' I said holding him by his hand as we came out of the Buddha Bazaar.