I was named Bansi. It was a gift for my suffering mother because I was baby boy.
“It was an auspicious moment”, my mother was telling me “ …a boy after years of wait ……….your father and I…... and all those talks of producing baby boys .Those poisoned tongues women. They would not leave me alone...” a silence fell over my mother, Kanti. She stopped talking to me. She went into the Kitchen to inspect special “Bhajji” my father had commanded this morning.
My father, Ram Lal, is a man of daily routines. His early morning prayers are in the room designated as Mandir, a perfumed shrine, decorated with icons of deities for the place. A place where spiritual connections are made renewed, offerings are made, and hopes are expressed. It is a place of thanksgiving and receiving. Any one can go there at any time. Bells jingle as one enters this space. Bells are hung low as not to miss any head or shoulder but children are helped to ring these. My father used to pick me up to extract sounds of all tones. My tiny fingers busy touching bells of all sizes. It was fun and I was only three years old then. That was thirteen years ago. I’m in my teen years. Those years when body play games on mind. Every boy travel this journey. But each boy is different. It’s sweet bitter sensation. Indescribable. Unknowable. A knowledge growing within the body day and night. Midsummer hot nights of Delhi made it more mysterious. An itch alright, it was.
My home, an ancestral house three hundred years old is largish for us three, my father, my mother and myself. It serves us well. This home with its so many rooms is full of family heirlooms mostly musical instruments, brocaded garments worn once or twice at weddings then stored and forgotten. Love for anything made of gold so deep rooted in Women folk. It is hoarded. My mother has a box full of it. It is sent to the jewellers, every spring, just for cleaning to capture its former feverish allure. Pieces are mentally tagged for would be daughter in-law or a daughter. Sadly, I’ve no sister.
It is a home, always full of people. Young or old aunts, distant uncles, visiting students on the verge of completing their studies. All are provided for. This is magic of extended family. My father Ram Lal proud of his name. He attributes all this to God “Bhagavan”. He believes in sheltering everybody who happens to be in the household. He is well known herbalist- medicine man in the community. He is respected and sought for his well-tested potions. His patients young and old, newly wed, nursing, expectant mothers. They all form a list of his daily cohort. It is not less than thirty on any one day. He charges eleven Rupees for those who can afford .Fee were only four Annas forty years ago.
Times are different but Ram Lal is the same, compassion for the poor and sweet words for everybody. He would not differentiate Sikhs from Hindus, Daleet the untouchable, from the poor Muslim. With sure fingers assessing every pulsating heart, as if, he could see through all humans. Patients turned away by the Doctors of Civil Hospital as incurable, were better within days. It seemed a play of mind over matter. A trick of herbs with ancient names. I often wondered if the magic was hidden in the name of the herb. May be it is the shear faith of a sufferer that transforms the herbs into an instant remedy. I had respect for that art of healing but modernity of the western medicine dented my thinking.
My father’s clinic, well placed in the Baithak, largest room in the house, is well organised with wooden cabinets especially made for storing herbs in neatly labelled drawers, named in Persian script . These were already there when my grand father handed over the work to my father. Ayurvedic art of healing was in our family for generations. Herbs and other medicines came from Kashmir and lands as far as China.
After morning worship and light breakfast my father would sit in the corner wearing white Dhoti, a loincloth, a white shirt. He sat on a spotless white dais.
A cylindrical pillow comforting his back, an ink well, a pen placed on well polished teak wood table with small drawers. My father would sit cross-legged behind this table.
Listening to every word of the patient with undivided attention. Every one was given time and care. Everybody felt that, my father, Pundit Jee is a miracle worker. The variety of aromas from herbs would cast a spell. This fragrance in the air signalled divine assurance for the sick and the poor. The medicines were only a pretext. The real cure was in the touch and talk of my father. All believed that.
“Lali, you should be careful about getting pregnant seventh time in a row in the eighth year of your marriage.” Lali young wife of local Builder contractor, Maan Singh, hiding her face in a gold brocaded sari. “Pandit Jee, I can’t help it my man Maan Singh is virile. He is a short-tempered husband too. He promises me new Jewellery set every year, being his Dahram Pattni, faithful wife ,what else can I do?” Lali bit her lips and flushed. “My Janna, Maan Singh true to his words always get the best golden Jewellery set in town , I’m no fool my girls are going to get married one day . I’m saving these for their weddings. People talk behind backs if Gold is absent on these important occasions. That is how the world is Pandit Jee.”
My father smiles attending next patient instructing his assistant, Lalu, to thin the Majune, an aphrodisiac. It was then made into gold-coated pills for husbands aspiring for baby boys after strings of unwelcome girls. My grandfather’s clients were Muslim Nawabs of Hydrabad. A potent recipe was prepared for ruler of small state in the Indian Subcontinent. A boy for the Nawab meant an invitation for my Grandfather to attend the circumcision ceremony. He was then presented a purse filled with gold coins.
“O Bansi, O, Bansi … are you at home? Come sit beside me and watch how I do the pulse, check the tongue ” my father would call me when I hardly had the chance to have my meals after my return from the College. “ Yes, Bapu I’ll be with you in a minute.” I was for modern medicine. I was doing Intermediate Science. I wanted to master the human body from inside out. Heart transplants fascinated me. News from South Africa of Dr Christian Bernard was beginning of a dream. I was not keen on those people, my father looked after. I dreamt of my days in a white coat, stethoscope dangling round my neck .I studied hard. I got good marks in the Intermediate. But there was so much competition and few places on offer. Some going to undeserving candidates under the quota system for the minorities, so called “scheduled castes.”
I went as far as Bombay beside Delhi for interviews. I continued my studies towards graduation in Sciences. I was then only sixteen going to seventeen...
The pains of growing, new books, new ideas, new lecturers, more to study, more to learn. It was new different challenge. I was now in a degree college, newly built for young men and women, just outside the suburbs of New Delhi. A City growing at the rate of a bamboo tree. I was growing too, among young girls as fellow students. An environment of competition, clumsy puberty, shyness and an urge to strike a conversation with popular girls.
Dropping coloured handkerchief behind girls “Excuse me, you dropped yours….” Some would just smile and seasoned one would retort. “Who you think you are, son of a Maharajah? Pick it up and wipe your nose with it and keep it safe, you Ulloo, you owl!” A giggle erupts from the boys behind. Hours spent in silence in the library were not so quiet. Whispers laced with romantic gestures. Talks of favourite movie idols. Rehearsing their lyrics and tunes of films on show were practised at the far end away from the grudging eyes of the librarian, Mrs Fernando. Young men exchanging phone numbers written on torn chits from exercise books were chewed by the girl opposite and then spitted out on the floor. Some enterprising girl would scribble a return message: Haramzaday, meaning one born out wedlock, go flirt with your sister. Undeterred the boy would invent other frolics to win the heart of the beloved. A game without ends.
Studious ones were often adept at capturing ambitious girls teaching them finer points of human biology, explaining mysteries of new life , yet unborn. They then would break the news to their proud parents usually at breakfast table “Daddy, Mummy I’m doing combined studies with Rahul.” Rakhi looking into her mother’s eyes. “Oh mummy, you wouldn’t believe Rahul is such a genius. I’m sure going to top the finals. ”
I still had to do couple of years for graduation. This, I hoped, would make my chances at the medical college much better.
My father noticed my pale face. He posed searching questions after my apprenticeship hours in the afternoon. I couldn’t speak a word. I was too embarrassed and young. He consulted his toms to devise prescription for me. He got more worried the more he searched for a remedy.
I took charge of my own laundry. My undergarments were my own business. Mother was also worried. The maidservant has now much leisure time on her hand. I spent more time in the bathroom. I loved creamy soap, expensive Imperial Leather was my favourite.
“Oh, me Oh me, O Ram O lovely itch!” A sensual squeal muffled in the falling stream of tap water, unspoken pleasures of budding youth.
I was doing well at the College few months away from graduation. Lala Sant Ram, a Jeweller by profession called in for his piles and undue discharge of blood. My father promptly suggested a time-honoured remedy.
After exchanging information about the market prices of gold and silver Lala Sant Ram asked, “You look worried... where your smiling face is.” Lala Sant Ram peeped into the inside of an old friend.
“Oh it is Bansi, the boy has made my life so miserable, I don’t know … can you suggest something ... you are man of the world.” My father looked at Lala Sant Ram with pleading eyes.
“Oh yes it’s so simple, Morakh, you fool.” A cunning shine shone in Lala Sant Ram’s eye.
He then whispered in my father’s ears. My father’s creased face now looked suddenly so youthful.
“Sweetmeats and young girls must be disposed off as quickly as possible through marriage…..” Lala Sant Ram was saying to my father in a mysterious voice “ No moment to be wasted I’ll arrange for Mahoorat, consulting an astrologer for the wedding day.” Two elderly men, embracing, patted each other’s backs as two players who just scored a goal.
I was aware of going on between the two elders. I was now listening to the chest of an old man using my newly acquired stethoscope.
I got married with the only daughter of Lala Sant Ram, the jeweller, named Chandni, the moonshine.
Chandni was only nineteen. I was not allowed any sight of her except for romantic descriptions of her as Chand Ka Mukhra, the moon faced. The occasion was tiresome spreading over days and nights.
My mother outdid Lala Sant Ram, the Jeweller, by presenting chest full of Jewellery. All gold weighing, not less than one Kilo. Lala Sant Ram, now my father in law must have been secretly bemused by this social ploy embedded in the ancient traditions.
It dawned on me that life itself is conceived out of an itch, a big itch. The original prickle was a complaint of loneliness by our Adam. God put a price of a leg and an arm to ease it. God had only praise for all the accessories what Adam was going to receive. After much haggling, a rib was agreed for the bargain. And that was that ever since.
As for my itch, it was now replaced by another one, my Chandni, my Dhram Pattni,my wife.
My college friends do often question me about intensity of my love for Chandni. Difficult to state but then again it is useless to scratch where it is not itching. So is my love for Chandni, I suppose.
You might wonder about my becoming a Doctor, after all? It is long story better left untold for now!
Azhar Latif © 10.08.2006