A Walk to Remember

Ojaswini Marathe

- Ojaswini Marathe


I recently visited my ancestral village Mataundh and I’ll be pretty honest, I was reluctant to go. I was definitely not on board when my dad told me that we’ll be celebrating Diwali in a village and that I’ll have to go without soda pop and Doritos for two whole days ( not that I consume them on a daily basis but one of the most basic withdrawal symptoms is to have what you can’t get). Nevertheless, I went, primarily because my dad didn’t really give me a choice. But all those who say that our parents know what’s best for us are right and this “travelogue” is the reason why.

My journey started in Chennai. When most of my friends were going to their homes, I was going on an adventure I wasn’t particularly excited about. It took me three hours to reach Delhi from Chennai and then another three hours to reach my cousin’s place from the airport. It was Dhanteras and the streets were packed with shopkeepers making money off that one human weakness we still have no cure for- vanity. Though the government has strict rules regarding the selling of firecrackers and for all the right reasons, we will always not listen because following rules will deprive us of the satisfaction of carping about the government when things go south.

The next morning, we woke up at 4 and rushed to the railway station. It was a chair car type train which meant that even though I was I had had less than 4 hours of sleep, I wasn’t getting any more. The very beguiling Dan Brown number that I was reading that time was literally the only thing that kept me going. We got down at Jhansi at around 11. I met my parents, sister, uncle and my grandparents there. We were a heterogeneous group of 11 with people who were now retired, people who were still working and people who hadn’t even started that journey. We also had a cab waiting for us. We were going to stay the night in Banda and visit the village in the morning. Banda is 216 km from Jhansi but the road is not very kind so it takes around 7 hours to reach there. We embarked on that long and what I felt was tedious journey almost immediately. But because I was one of the younger members of the family, I was coerced to take the most uncomfortable seat and if a journey is longer than 10 minutes, it makes me super cranky.  It was a long journey, full of hurdles- both literal and figurative. We drank water from a hand pump that was there out of nowhere, like an oasis in a desert, and ate at a roadside dhaba where the owner didn’t understand the concept of everyone eating in separate bowls and he cared not to keep a box of candies outside his store in case some city kids ever passed by. There was also no toilet in his eatery and he asked us to go in the fields. However, our tiny bladders cried a sigh of relief when the lady sitting in the grocery store right next to this dhaba informed us that there was a government installed toilet in close vicinity of that dhaba.

It was a seven-hour journey and ideally, I would like to write at least seven sentences so that you can also go through the same journey that I did but this travelogue is not about the journey, it is about the destination. It is about the journey the destination led me on.
We reached Banda at 6 pm on Diwali eve and checked in to our hotel. Even though my dad had booked the hotel through a trusted website, I was expecting a room that was rather dingy and shabby with no facilities at all. However, the condition of the place came as a surprise to me. Not only was it sparkling clean and spruce but also it was very spacious and airy. We went to a nearby restaurant to eat. The streets, bustling with energy, had the Diwali vibe going. Even though it was nothing compared to the hustle and bustle of the city, the place was lively in its own quiet way. The people moved with soft steps and hushed tones as opposed to the unpleasant howling over the phone and the rancid cacophony of the never-ending traffic in the city. It was peaceful yet energetic.

Anyway, next morning, yet again we woke up early in the morning along with the cuckoo bird that would commence her music recitals at the break of dawn. The first faint light of morning had begun to consume the lowest stars on the horizon. However, we never cared to take a minute and watch the rising sun or listen to little bird’s melodies and the thousand stories of its travels latent in those frills and trills. We were in a hurry to get to our destination because that very evening we had a train from Jhansi to Gwalior. Jhansi is 8 hours from that village and God forbid, if our horse got stuck in the ditch, we, the people of the city, would be stranded in a village. So, we woke up, eyes half-open, and got dressed without even realizing that it was Diwali. Then we had to struggle a little to find a breakfast place because unlike us, people were actually busy celebrating Diwali and didn’t care to sell paranthas and jalebis for a few bucks. After all, today was the day to welcome the Goddess of wealth. After almost canceling the idea of having breakfast because the grapes were sour, we found a place where they were selling extremely unhygienic and oily kachoris and samosas which to my disbelief were lip-smacking delicious.

The road to the village was better than what I had expected it to be. I thought we would have to GTA our way into the village but there was a well-constructed path that led us there. Our first stop was the fields. My great-great-grandfather had bought a lot of land there for 33 rupees in those days and leased it out. He was a respected zamindar in his time. The denizens of that land treat us with a lot of love and gratitude even to this day, such was his reverence.

The fields were long and green and crops grew there in abundance. They stretched for kilometers with only a couple of sauntering cows and buffalos in the line of sight. The fields were dotted with trees that allowed pale throws of light to fall on the viridescent grass. They were exactly how I had read about them in books and stories, only more beautiful. When I had first read ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ by Leo Tolstoy, I always wondered why Pakhom hankered after more and more land. But if the lands are so beautiful and bountiful, there is got to be no end to a man’s needs.

From here, we drove through a tunnel and arrived at the beautiful village lake. This lake was the heart and soul of the village because not only was this water body the prime source of water in the village but also this lake was a spot loved by people of all generations and was pretty much the place to gossip and play. Whilst most lakes are marred by algae, this one was bejeweled with a million lotuses that grew on the crystal waters. Children there had the privilege of swimming with actual ducks rather than the fake rubber ducks we use to simulate the effect. They swam, they bathed, they played. Exuberance drooled from their mouths as they spoke about their fantastical adventures. They had a lot of reasons to crib and cry and yet we were the ones cribbing about the dearth of chocolates and ice creams. Unlike most commercial lakes, for which we shell out thousands of rupees to see, this one was clean and devoid of empty packets of chips. The Lake sparkled with subdued pride. It was a rare beauty, one of its kind.

Our next stop was our ancestral home which is now nothing but rubble and dust. What once was a wildly opulent cottage brimming with life was now reduced to nothing. The sofas and other material belongings, probably stolen. The million letters and stories written by my great-great-grandfather washed away by the rain. The beautiful memories of what was once a home, dwindling and consigned to oblivion. It was a house of cards which caved in by the winds of abandonment and neglect.

Though I have never really seen my ancestral home because Nature tore it down assuming I’d never visit it anyway, Nature had bestowed upon me the art of extrapolation. My parents, uncles, and grandparents got super nostalgic and started reminiscing about the beautiful days or the “glory days” as they like to call it.  Their vividly detailed anecdotes and tales really helped me paint a picture. They not only described to us how the house used to look but also told us nuanced stories about my ancestors who lived there once upon a time. I felt like a six-year-old again as I listened to the spiels attentively, totally enraptured. My ancestors had set up a gobar gas plant and had instigated the use of renewable sources of energy in the village and that made me swell up with pride. I felt a close tie with that place, an ineffable feeling of belongingness.

The houses in that alley had a very rustic overtone to them but had a muted sense of grace. They were a colourful cluster of bricked buildings and thatched roofs flanked on both sides of the rugged mud road.

The villagers were simple and unpretentious and made us feel very warm and welcome. Everybody touched our feet which made me super uncomfortable, to be honest, because all those people were at least 20 years older to me but it was probably their tradition. They offered us tea and trust me when I say this, their tea was better than any Chai Tea you’ll ever get at Starbucks (probably with your name spelled incorrectly. I mean seriously, what is it with Starbucks and spellings?!).

With the pastel homes and the bright smiles, the village was picturesque and charming. It probably wasn’t that one jock in your high school that everyone had a crush on but it was like that cute boy with the toothy grin and the ruffled hair who went around giving smiles like he’d never run out of them. It probably wouldn’t get you the title of Homecoming Queen but it was definitely the kind you fall in love with.

I did a little exploring and was completely mesmerized by the quaintness of it all. I saw a couple of men drawing water from the hand pump and a lady was drawing a rangoli outside her home which was a burst of colour enough to liven up the place. I saw a couple of toilet units in the village which is actually quite commendable. It was a very welcome change from the Dickensian Coketown I used to call home. Goats and cows lived in harmony with humans. Despite the lack of ornamental embellishment, the place didn’t look drearily dull and drab, it was teeming with energy. A plausible cause of this might be that red zinger.
 
I think I was more mesmerized by the simplicity and tranquility that enveloped the village. We sit in our comfy homes with the windows shut because the air conditioner is on, desperately trying to quarantine ourselves from the crass cacophony of the city where everyone is constantly on their toes, always trying to get somewhere and be somewhere. In the city, we are all so lost in the whirlwind of the flashing lights and the neon signs that we often forget to close our eyes for a minute and breathe. We constantly feel a void in our lives that we are unable to figure out, so we try to fill it with recliners and scented candles and alcohol (of course) when all we need to do is unclutter our lives- throw out the excess possessions and emotions.

The borough also featured a railway station which was both- a place where the Train rests for a while before continuing its journey and a trail for the pedestrians when there is no train at sight. The village dwellers were inordinately proud of this railway station. This railway station was like that one toy the little kid cannot part with. Even though this was a small village, it still had a functioning railway station and that is, believe it or not, a huge deal. The railway station was clean as a whistle (Take notes, Hazrat Nizamuddin. Also, pun intended). It had a well-maintained platform, four benches, drinking water, and a ticket counter. The brightly painted walls really brought out the sublimity and grandeur of the station.
 
To get the complete experience of the bucolic life, we walked along the railway track and I was the most excited of us all because I’ve always wanted to do this. It is sure a lot harder than it looks. It invoked the Tom Sawyer in me and I was walking with the exhilaration and excitement he probably felt when he marched into that church where his memorial service was taking place.

It was a huge field and the grass surely grew greener over there. Hundreds of mahua trees had been planted all over the space, their subtle sweetness permeating the air. A serene wisp of the fragrance of these mahua flowers curled in the air.  Hummingbirds sang mellifluously, probably about the ravishing lands and freedom while the tailor-birds weaved intricate nests. There was a variety of plants and flowers growing sporadically throughout. Droplets of dew hung from the green leaves and they glistened like a thousand diamonds.  I want to say that this mosaic seemed like an African jungle but that would be unfair to India. Tucked in the middle of this green paradise was a small Temple, which looked majestic and potent despite its demure appearance. A pandit, probably in his sixties, stood there with folded hands, welcoming us. We had a small ‘pooja’ to bless our families and our land (and the rains down in Africa) and to purge ourselves from our sins.

After the pooja, we sat there for a while contemplating.  I don’t know if it was the mantras chanted by the priest or the fresh air but my soul felt somewhat rejuvenated. If you think about it, we spend so many dollars to recreate this relaxing and invigorating environment by buying expensive scented candles and surround sound systems, treating ourselves to spas and joining yoga classes we only visit once a year (New Years’, of course). Peace of Mind has become a fictional character in the cities, a mere figment of our imagination, the true treasure we hope to achieve in our sorry lives. We feel like we are living but in reality, we are only on the brink of consciousness, barely moving from one tall building to another.
 
The villagers offered us fresh cow milk. I was a little reluctant to taste it because I never drink plain milk; it has to be spiked with cocoa or coffee powder. But when the villagers insisted, I had it and I am glad I did because that was the sweetest milk I had ever tasted. The city milk would taste like water in front of this unadulterated drink of the Gods.

It gave me the momentary energy Popeye gets from eating spinach and I started the journey back with unmatched fervour but after about 5 minutes I was completely drained. I crawled my way to the finish line, drowning in my own sweat.

But before the swirling sky could change colours and reveal the million constellations we had only seen in science books, we were already on our way back because while the village was good, us city people can stay away from soda pop only for this long (and we had a train to catch). That is how helpless our lives have made us. We have become slaves to our lifestyles and that is taking a toll on all of us. Even when we try to do things that we really want to do, the time bomb is always ticking. Heaving a sigh of relief has become a luxury most of us can’t afford. There was a time when drinking soda pop was a luxury. Now we can drink as many soda pops as we want but we can seldom take a minute to enjoy it. And somehow, we have all started to enjoy this speed. We’ve moved from Test cricket to T-20, classical music to pop music and we have no intention of slowing down. We are all erratic and fickle people, struggling to fit into the mundane, humdrum routine we are expected to follow.

We grew up in the wilderness of our greens. There are creepers crawling along our spines and bamboos shooting from our heads. Flowers grow out of our bones. We were all born a little wild, untamed by reality. And now we’re all chained to the rhythm of someone else’s song. We are all suffering from a Stockholm syndrome of sorts; we find bliss in the comforts of a modern home but if you really think about it, we have all become slaves to this comfortable life. We are simply trying to make our suffering a little more comfortable without once trying to get to the root cause of all our sufferings which Gautama Buddha broke down for us so many centuries ago- desire. We can put desire and unhappiness on Barney Stinson’s hot-crazy scale. But visiting this village helped me gain fresh perspective. Before coming to the village, my uncle had told us that the reason he wanted us to see the village once was for us not to get to know the ways of the village but to really experience it. India is not just the superstar cities we see when we Google ‘cities in India’, it is the million little villages that form the backbone of the country. It is the people who work day in and day out in those fields, use water pumps instead of aqua guards and live in ‘kacha’ houses. There sure is FasTag on every highway now, the facility of having literally everything we could ever dream of delivered to our doorstep at the click of a button and faster internet but more than half of India is still struggling to meet their daily needs and unless we acknowledge that, we as a nation won’t be able to progress. And I think that is why it is important for every one of us to understand India at the grass-root level for any of us to make any significant change in the country.

It was a very wholesome and cathartic experience for me. It made me realize how far my family has come in life and how my ancestors worked hard to give me a life I take for granted. It all started with 33 rupees and the determination to do something and be someone which is probably why the villagers respect my great-great-grandfather and his successors to this day. You have to put in effort to get this kind of love and respect and you surely can’t get it in those water-tight compartments you are living in where you don’t even know or care to know who your neighbour is. Yes, you need money to build a home but you also need love to fill it with people. We eat stale microwaved food, hear the static on the radio, stay up all night waiting for the text message we know we are never going to receive and then complain about everything that is wrong with our lives. We have completely forgotten what it is like to celebrate the little things in life. We are somewhere deep down, never really enjoying ourselves. We are always anxious about the things we don’t have and are always comparing. And, like Taylor Swift said, we need to calm down and stop stepping upon other people’s gowns. 

Throughout my journey to the village, I was cribbing about how pointless and inconvenient it was and I kept asking my parents if it was even worth it. On my way back, I was dead silent because in my head all I was thinking was, if this isn’t worth it, what is?


Author Introduction: Hailing from a verdant vale in the foothills of the Himalayas, Ojaswini Marathe is a B.Tech undergrad from VIT Chennai. Currently interning at Cisco, Bangalore and pursuing a career in software development, she hopes to one day recognize the meeting ground between her enthusiasm for literature and technology alike. A vociferous reader with a penchant for prose and poetry, she has a smidge of talent in stringing sentences together. She believes strongly in the competence and relevance of the written medium and thus has always been a part of various literature clubs in both school and college. She even has her own blog that goes by the name of ‘Meraki’ where she sometimes posts some of her musings and verses. Apart from this, she is also heavily involved in social service and is determined to make a positive change in this world. Be it uplifting the weaker sections of the society through entrepreneurial action, imparting education to the bright minds of the country who can’t afford it or interacting with differently-abled children who are in dire need of company, she has done it all. Being an active member of Enactus VITC, she founded ‘Project Naari’ which is an initiative to eradicate the social stigma around menstruation. She is also avid fan of music and she loves to sing and play the guitar.

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