By Ananya Mukherjee
Backdrop: A freezing winter night in Patiala in the year 2001.
Backdrop: A freezing winter night in Patiala in the year 2001.
It was half past midnight when I heard the doorbell ring. As planned, I wrapped up my little girl in a thick woolen blanket. She was fast asleep in her long johns. Picking her as quietly as I could, I tip toed to open the hard wooden door. A sharp cold breeze whisked past me through the second layer of the net door. In the mist-filled dim greyish blue light of the staircase, I could only see the shadow of a man.
Well-built to the extent to be called athletic, he was covered in heavy woolen clothes, that included a cap drawn over his head covering most of his face. His neck was wrapped in a thick muffler. A dark leather jacket rose up to this throat.
The chilling wind was making it difficult for me to stand steady. He asked me if I were ready. I nodded my head and handed over my child to him. Then I went in to bring my own red leather coat, cap, and gloves. With my hands trembling at the winter cold, I managed to lock the main door as noiselessly as possible and went down the staircase following him.
We paced up the drive way without exchanging a single word. When we had nearly reached the gate, he turned back once as if he had changed his mind. My eyes perhaps had a questioning look for he handed over my girl back to my arms and said, “I don’t want any noise. Leave the iron-gate. Let’s jump over the boundary wall. Wait, I will jump first. You pass her over. Then you jump across. “
I did as I was told. He crossed the boundary wall to the other side and waited. I passed my daughter over and jumped across. It was cold as cold it could get and we were freezing in the open lawn. We waited for a few seconds before he picked up my daughter from my arms again and went inside a dark bungalow. He came out after a few minutes and locked the doors of the house where he had just left my little girl. We hopped into his car as silently as we could and just as we were about to leave, I saw a man standing in a balcony watching us from across the road. His gaping mouth had the most incredibly horrified expression as we drove away, laughing.
Yes, you read it right. Laughing till we choked! We had just created the spiciest gossip in the neighbourhood! If you are wondering what this is all about, let me explain.
That man who I supposedly “eloped with in the wee hours of a winter night” was Colonel Bhatta, my husband’s friend and colleague in the Indian Army. We had been neighbours for almost a year. When two Bongs are thrown into a place far away from home and end up living next doors, they no longer remain friends. Between couriers of aloo posto and maacher jhol, shukto, khichudi and kosha mangsho across boundary walls and evenings spent in Rabindra sangeet, adhunik gaan and all things Bong, they become one large family. So it was with us. Col Bhatta and his beautiful wife Shikha soon became a part of our extended family in Patiala, where my husband was pursuing a MD in Sports medicine. Needless to say, most of our memories are of moments we spent in the company of the Bhatta’s. In hindsight, I can barely remember an evening we had dined separate in our individual homes. Typically, our days as young mothers would be busy housekeeping and running around the kids. My daughter was particularly close to the Bhattas and picked up many of life’s first lessons in the company of our kind hearted neighbours. On a usual day, as soon as the men came back in the evenings, we would gather together, bring in some food either in their lawn or on our terrace, light up a camp fire and have a drink and dinner like one big family. There were days when the fog and the chill would get so strong, we would all slip inside huge quilts in a well heated room and chat the night through.
It was on one of those winter nights when my husband was away, and we were having dinner together when Col Bhatta asked me how Doc was returning. I told him that my husband who was travelling by train had to disembark in Ambala Cantt ( since Patiala had no railway station) and would most likely rent a cab home. An idea was proposed that post dinner, all five of us, including Gungun who was two and Shubhang (their son) who was nine would join the reception troop to bring home Doc. It was meant to be a surprise. It also meant we needed to drive 40 kms in the early hours of the morning in the cold to reach Ambala Cantt station.
Unfortunately, later in the evening, the children fell asleep too early and Shikha’s migraine surfaced from nowhere. So our plans had to be altered. Shikha proposed I leave Gungun with her and go ahead with Col Bhatta to receive my husband.
So that’s the real story, and that’s exactly what we did. However, to the spying, perceptive eye coated with conviction, it seemed like a perfect neighbourhood gossip. The incident remains etched as one of my fondest memories of the princely state of Patiala till date.
For those of you, who associate the name of the city with the measure of liquor equivalent to 120 ml, or the extravagant Patiala Peg, here’s a story we learnt during our stay.
One of our banker friends in the Civilian community outside of the Army territory would often invite us to the Maharani Club. Located in the midst of Baradari garden in the very heart of the 6-km radius town, the majestic red tile-roofed mansion was said to resemble the pavilion of the Oval England. The architecture was a blend of the colonial influence and the royal grandeur of the erstwhile state of Patiala. Interestingly, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala was the captain of the first cricket team that visited Britain way back in 1911. He also had an indomitable Polo team. Before its civilized version or Tent Pegging, the army was known to play skull pegging where an army of fierce warriors would ride on their horseback, pegging skulls of their enemies’ buried half in the ground, along the way. With time, the game changed its format and friendly matches began to be organized. It was during one such “friendly” invitation that the Viceroy’s Pride arrived in Patiala for a match. For some reason, the home team felt threatened and nervous that they would face a loss and the wrath of the fearsome Maharaja, hatched a conspiracy.
On the evening before the match, the Viceroy’s Pride was invited for a drink at the Maharani Club where a double measure or the first Patiala pegs of whiskey was served. Needless to say, the Maharaja’s team won the match the next morning. The legend of the Patiala Peg lives on.
Patiala is a treasure trove for short story lovers. My husband’s school, the National Institute of Sports, was a part of the sprawling princely palaces and gardens right in the royal district of the city. Every trip opened up a Pandora’s Box of tales and folklore. One of the famous ones, as I now recall was about Maharaja Bhupinder Singh and his fleet of Rolls Royce cars. When the Maharaja visited a Rolls Royce showroom in Britain and enquired the price of a premium model, he was humiliated by a salesman who doubted his affordability. The infuriated Maharaja Bhupinder Singh not only bought all the cars from the showroom, he cut open the roofs and began to use them as garbage trucks. No sooner did the news reach England, an apologetic Rolls Royce envoy requested the maharaja to return all the garbage truck and replaced them with the finest and most premium models.
It was also during our two-year stay that I picked up other gems; words in Punjabi that I would not have known by simply watching Bollywood movies or being an Army wife ( where for some reason people simply assume Punjabi to be the most spoken language after English in the mess before General Kapoor says so ). A horribly misinterpreted phone call taught me that “lukhh” had little or nothing to do with Lukhnow, that the colour of the turban shared some hints about the clan or identity, that makki da ataa must always be kneaded with warm water and never rolled; that there was nothing so heavenly as stopping by a Dhaba on a long drive to sit and relish a freshly baked alu ka paratha with makkhan di tikki on top and a glass of malaiwali lassi; that it was perfectly normal to attend weddings with ‘Mandeep weds Mandeep’ written on floral plaques ( one just needed to ‘see’ the implied Singh and the Kaur), that no one cared if tandoori kukkad was the national bird or not so long as it found a spot in the dinner plate, that “naardana” chowk meant “anaardana”; and that a desperate looking youngster suffering from cardiac arrest like symptoms on a hot summer afternoon complaining of “book ni lagda, neend ni aandi, jee gabrata “ at our door could actually be the proud owner of a name such as Aashiq Ali.
I also learnt a thing or two about the large heartedness and progressive mindset of the Sikh community. My many trips to Dukhniwaran Gurudwara, watching the kar sevaks, attending the langar, were the most humbling experiences of my lifetime.
And I would do little justice to my memories of Punjab if I do not mention a lady called Leela.
Leela auntie, all of 50 then was my domestic help. Her mother had come as a part of the dowry with the Maharani of Patiala. Leela auntie was born in the palace grounds and was raised serving the first family of Patiala. Before she started working for me, she had spent six years in Singapore and another four in Hong Kong working as a helper in NRI households. When she came back, from whatever money she had saved, she invested in her daughter’s college education and in building a double-storey house for herself and her family. I would often question her why she needed to work in her age, and a response would be “ Aurat ko na humesha kaam karni chahiye. Khud ka kamana chahiye. Tabhi uski izzat raheti hai,” ( A woman should always be financially independent. Only then can she get the respect).
We left Patiala in 2002 and 13 years later, as I look back at the memories and reminisce the wonderful times spent in the company of some warm hearted people with such a positive happy outlook towards life, my eyes get a wee bit misty. I am not a drinker but I might as well pour myself an extra helping of my favourite port wine and raise a toast to the Patiala Peg. Cheers!