There was never any electricity at the ‘ kabristan ’ in Saharanpur as we cycled to the canal for a swim, after bunking classes. It is a vast expanse of graves, surrounded by dense foliage and dishevelled grass, with people zig-zagging across it to the canal for a breath of fresh air, even as little kids jumped into the water to look for old coins.
In the night, as we cycled back across the kabristan , we sang loudly, to scare away the ghosts. We never found any, except in the ghost stories, which were always fascinating.
The local ‘shamshan’ was rarely in use, because most people took their dead to nearby Haridwar for cremations. Even the last rites were performed there. In the evening, the diyas would float at Har ki Pauri, and the mourning would mix with the rippling waters and the floating light, into the dark abyss of the night’s sadness. Life went on.
Until the Muzaffarnagar riots in August-September 2013, there was no communal polarisation in this part of western Uttar Pradesh. In the dingy by-lanes of the old town, where genius craftspeople and little children made magical wooden artifices, and near the clock tower and fountain where old restaurants served butter chicken, mutton korma and hot rotis; and beyond, inside the sprawling Gandhi Maidan, where political rallies and all-night Urdu mushairas were held; right across Gill Colony, Mission Compound and the old Railway Ground near Sophia School where we played cricket, or at the bustling sugar and paper mills, Saharanpur was like a story told in Chandamama , replete with sketches drawn with childhood innocence and an isolated lucidity uncluttered by the knowledge systems of big cities. It was like a line of harmony had been drawn on the ground, and the people followed it, with a certain pronounced decency. Until the arrival of vicious communal agenda.
The old wooden bridge at the railway station remains as it is, refurbished, with just the minimalist finesse that marks the town’s everyday ritual. There are metal straps to make it stronger, like a cobbler patches an old shoe, and it moves and shakes like the Lakshman Jhula as you walk across, with a train rumbling below on the tracks.
Running along the stairs leading up to the bridge is a hollowed-out track, into which you can hoist the wheels of your bicycle and glide it to the top; some actually cycled across the tattered wooden bridge, never ever afraid that it would fall apart.
Things don’t fall apart in Saharanpur. In its daily chaos, everything is united in symphony with its detached dust and aridity, like Tarantino’s music in retrospect.
Across western UP, now in the throes of the to-and-fro of the ‘mother of all polls’, in Omkara territory, Saharanpur is a nondescript town which hides nothing, tells nothing. However, like all small towns in UP, it too has a story.
From the railway platform, you could hop across the tracks for a cup of tea, and never did we buy a platform ticket. The wooden bridge often became a moment of revelation, like a black-and-white unedited shot of classical cinema: the train moving through the mist or smoke, the slow evening sky descending onto the railway lines, villagers with their bundles hurrying to their destinations, and the tea boiling in the kettle. In this slow, suspended architecture of an old railway station, there was no ambition to be achieved — not even unrequited love, or a neatly-written love letter hidden in an Enid Blyton, Gulshan Nanda or Barbara Cartland book.
Across the bridge, outside the railway station on that side, the stables have long vanished, but the strong smell of horses remains. Horse-driven tongas are few and far between now, replaced by the new jugaar passenger tempos; but the rare tonga that remains still speeds along, resurrecting the ‘tup-tup’ horse-shoe rhythm of vintage OP Nayyar songs.
Across the station, near the rundown bus station full of piss and paan-spit, the Peshawari restaurant still runs 24x7; during exams we would gather here in the night and mug up the last pages, always praying to god, “please, please, postpone the exams”. God never gave a damn.
During spring, Maa would tell us to not eat ber (Indian plum) before Saraswati Puja (Basant Panchami). She made us fast that day before taking us to the pandal to offer pushpanjali (flowers) to the benign goddess with the veena and beauteous eyes, who was dressed in an immaculate cotton sari. Maa knew I was weak in mathematics, that I feared numbers, that I hallucinated about numbers during bouts of typhoid — so she would take along the second-hand textbooks, decked in nice brown cover, and place them at the feet of the goddess. We never had enough money to buy first-hand books — so old ones from seniors at half-price were always precious.
In this childhood’s small town in western UP, everything was precious, even though there was no electricity, and we never had a fridge, cooler or television till we were grown-up. All we had was a Murphy radio, with a warm, yellow light, and I used to think that people lived inside it, with their voices and songs. The magnificent Mahalaya early morning recitation, when Durga would arrive by boat, or on a elephant or sometimes even a horse. Or, Binaca Geetmala on Wednesday nights with its signature tune and Ameen Sayani’s golden voice taking us on all kinds of romantic journeys.
Night after night, as the north wind blew over the mango and litchi orchards, All India Radio’s Urdu service rang across the open-to-sky courtyards and terraces, which ran into each other like ghost stories, into unimaginable terrains of wonder, dreams and fantasy. From the poetry of Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianvi to the melodious tunes of Salil Chowdhury and SD Burman, the songs of KL Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Rafi, Manna Dey, Geeta Dutt, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Talat Mehmood, Asha Bhosle, and Lata Mangeshkar swirled inside the mosquito nets like magic realism, even when the nights were hot and we splashed ‘hand-pump’ water on the floor to keep our bodies cool.
And, yet, there was never any true despair or longing. Small was truly beautiful. The less we had, the happier we were.
Small towns were like mothers — they embraced you with their little joys, their intimacies, fantasies and miracles, and healed your wounds. Even the street dogs in the back lane, fed by Maa, would become quiet and listen to the radio, their eyes moist and sad as only those of street dogs can be, forever looking for love.
Those days, too, Saharanpur was part of the bloody Omkara territory. In the hinterland beyond Shamli, Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, criss-crossing the mustard and sugarcane fields, along the broken roads, the arid evenings were replete with dust and stagnation, and everything acquired a sinister stillness. The dirty puddle near the jalebi cart, swarming with flies for many long years, would become an eye-witness to a macabre anticipation; the rotting tyre, or the open gutter never changed its contours, despite the four seasons. The mandi (wholesale market) would be as bustling as ever, as money circulated in blind pre-capitalist circles, with no ambition to soar on the winds of the market economy into the affluent society of globalisation.
There were gang wars, katta shootouts with country-made guns, stabbings, the usual reconciliation and compromises, and always with caste politics running amok. But the mustard flowers across the rural expanse were as luminescent as ever, yellow like a dream come true. And when the jaggery melted amid the greenery, its fragrance moved like a delicious memory, soaked with strange desires. The sweetness lingered over the town; outside the crowded courts — badi and chhotikacheri — farmers came to the halwai shop and ordered with an expressed joy: makkhan maarke chai (tea with butter) and half-a-kilo of the sweetest burfi. Undoubtedly, even in the most coarse discourse, the sweetness would come by, between the lines.
In the night the bullock carts still move slowly, like an infinite caravan fated to be eternally lost in time and space. In its unhurried journey — loaded with sugar cane, the men smoking beedis or a hookah, rocking to and fro, the black beasts of burden dragging them — the sweet-laden train moved unbearably slowly. There was no hurry, the destination could wait. So the kids would hide in unknown corners and run as silently as thieves alongside the carts, pulling out the sugar canes one by one. It was always so silent, secretive and magical, the sweet cane chewed in the mouth, the labour so much worth it, the steal collected and shared among friends, brothers and sisters in the mohalla. It was exactly like running after a kite, across meadows and orchards, flying into the sky like Olympic gold medallists, the scratches on the knees like real medals.
The Happy Book Corner is long gone, Gulshan Ice Cream has split between brothers, and the little graveyard with wild flowers at the beautiful church near the hospital is now hidden by a cluster of vertical, ugly houses. No one writes love letters any more at the dirty nullah called dhamola , waiting hours for a glimpse of the beloved, even if for a fleeting moment. You don’t really get to see a Sophia Loren movie in the morning show on Tuesday at Lakshmi Talkies (‘Too bad she is bad’), nor can you hear Chawla Aunty singing Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s ‘Summer Wine’ in a voice like velvety wine any more. She worked in the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC). When we were in college, she gave us packets of Wills Navy Cut, with that lovely red logo, freshly rolled out from the factory.
And, yet, things remain the same. As the rickshaw-puller struggles up the steep bridge on your way to ghantaghar , like always you get down and walk to make it easier for him. The evening train is trundling across the nullah. You can hear it whistle. On the other side of the railway tracks you can still see the old wooden bridge, rocking like a song from the past. A black-and-white movie — unedited.
Amit Senguptais a journalist and academic based in Delhi