Summer vacations were always looked forward to by me when I was a school child. Vacations were a welcome break from the boring routine of school and studies. As soon as exams were over, I would pack my bags and head for my Grandfather’s village in Gujarat, India. My Grandfather had several children who were settled in different parts of India and abroad. The prospect of meeting my cousins, who would also be finishing their exams at or about the same time were an additional impetus for me to make a beeline for the village.
It was the summer of 1979 and I was about 11 years old. As soon as I finished my class V exams, I reached Grandpa’s village the very next day escorted by my father and mother.
It was a happy reunion with the other members of my family that year. My cousins Jalpa, Shilpa, Rahul and Mitesh were already there. We spent the large part of the day frolicking about the village and the fields surrounding the village. It was a welcome break from the claustrophobic ambience of the cities we lived in. We ran around the banyan trees playing hide and seek and chased the monkeys who were constantly in search of food. In fact, our parents had a very difficult time in recalling us for food as we just did not get enough of the fun and games we indulged in.
But the time we looked forward to the most was after dinner when Grandpa would tell us stories of the village and the regions surrounding the village. These memorable stories are still etched into my memory and are still a source of great pleasure.
It was evening and darkness had enveloped the village. We finished our Spartan meal of brinjal vegetable and bajra chappaties. We had our meal in a hurry as we knew that we would find Grandpa in the courtyard waiting to tell us a story.
Grandpa was a short, thin and wizened old man with a handle-bar moustache so typical of all the locals of that area. His hair was neatly oiled and white with age. He was always seen puffing a hookah. He had an affable look about him. But the trait about him which appealed the most to me was his affectionate smile and the merry twinkle in his eyes.
We rushed out after the meal and sure as ever Grandpa was under the tree, in our courtyard, seated crossed legged on a bed waiting for us.
‘Grandpa tell us a story,’ said Mitesh.
‘Yes, yes Grandpa, tell us a story,’ echoed all of us, as we seated ourselves under the tree in front of Grandpa.
‘Alright, what kind of story would you like to hear?’ Grandpa asked us, sucking his hookah vigorously.
‘A story about thieves and dacoits,’ we said in harmony.
‘I will tell you the story of my marriage with your grandmother,’ said Grandpa.
‘What has that to do with thieves and dacoits?’ we enquired, sounding a bit disappointed.
‘Be patient,’ said Grandpa, waving his hand towards us beckoning us to come closer.
We all trooped close to him and sat down on a carpet near him eagerly waiting for him to tell us the story.
Grandpa sighed before he started, looking a bit nostalgic. He took another deep puff of his hookah and started telling us the story of his marriage.
‘It was in the winter of 1925 that my marriage to your Grandma was fixed. I was just 19 and your Grandma was 14 years old. We did not see each other till after our marriage. Marriages those day’s were fixed up without the knowledge and consent of children,’ explained Grandpa.
‘Does that mean that you did not date each other before marriage?’ asked a shocked Jalpa.
‘No. In those days people did not see their spouses till after marriage,’ said Grandpa.
‘How strange! How can you marry without kissing or dating each other,’ said a baffled Shilpa who was raised in the U.S.
‘In India, you only fall in love after marriage,’ Grandpa cleared her amazement with a merry twinkle in his eyes.
He then continued his narration.
‘We lived in separate villages and my marriage party reached your Grandma’s village with much fanfare.’
‘I was seated on a horse and was accompanied by a band of musicians that played marriage music all the way to her village. The youngsters of the village merrily danced to their tunes and the elderly people walked along. My face was covered with flowers and the horse that I was riding was also heavily decked with flowers and silver. I was wearing an elaborate turban and silk kurta and dhoti. My body was laden with gold jewellery. The horse moved slowly with the ‘baraat’,’ said Grandpa, whose eyes had a distant look as he reminisced about that day.
‘When we reached your Grandma’s village, we were received by her relatives and friends by the showering of rose petals of different colors.’
‘I descended the horse with great relief as my back was aching after a long ride from my village,’ said Grandpa.
‘Why didn’t you just drive down to Grandma’s village?’ asked Shilpa curiously.
‘The only means of transport those days were riding a horse, or a bullock-cart or going on foot,’ said Grandpa with a smile on his face.
‘How strange!’ exclaimed Shilpa. She could not imagine travel without planes and cars.
Grandpa then continued:
‘We were escorted into the hall where I was to get married after giving us ‘sherbet’ and refreshments.’
‘The hall was large and spacious and the podium where we were to get married was covered with garlands of marigolds. At the centre of the podium was the central fire around which sat a priest who was chanting mantras and I was made to seat on the other side,’ said Grandpa puffing the hookah even more vigorously now.
‘Soon your Grandma was brought to the podium and seated next to me. I struggled to get a look at her but in vain as her face was covered with flowers,’ said Grandpa with a mischievous look on his face.
‘The priest continued with the rituals and soon we were made to circle the central fire seven times with the priest offering oblations of ghee or clarified butter, flowers and rice into the fire amidst chanting of mantras.’
‘As soon as our marriage was solemnized the hall permeated with the aroma of tasty marriage food. In those days that was the greatest attraction of the marriage for everyone,’ said Grandpa.
‘Things were so simple those days,’ I said. Grandpa nodded in agreement.
‘As soon as the food was ready to serve the children stopped running around, the musicians stopped playing and the elders stopped gossiping and talking. Everyone made a beeline for the dining hall which was spacious enough to accommodate all of us,’ said Grandpa .
‘You people must be very hungry,’ said Rahul.
‘Yes, the travel and marriage had worked up an appetite in all of us.’
‘All of us sat crossed legged in a line eager to devour the food. We were served food in banana leaves those days. The fare was simple but filling. It was typical a Gujarati meal of purees, three types of vegetables, farsan like dhokla, sweets like ladoo’s, jelabi’s and sweet milk, dal and rice. All of us thoroughly enjoyed the meal after which we retired for the day,’ said Grandpa running his hands over his stomach as if he had just ingested all that food.
‘What about your honeymoon?’ asked Shilpa curiously.
Grandpa smiled and with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and said, ‘In those times the concept of honeymoon was different. It was not ‘immediate’ as it is today!’
‘How strange!’ exclaimed Rahul. He could not imagine a marriage not followed by a holiday and honeymoon.
‘After resting in your Grandma’s village for a day or two we left for our village,’ said Grandpa.
‘We paid obeisance to your Grandma’s parents by touching their feet and left. We were given some armed guards to protect us on the way back by my in-laws as we were carrying a lot of dowry and the forest between our villages was infested with dacoits.’
‘Dowry!’ exclaimed Mitesh. ‘Is it not illegal to take dowry?’ he added shocked to the core.
‘Not in those times. Dowry was common those days,’ added Grandpa sucking his hookah even more vigorously.
‘Anyway we left for our village early in the morning. I was seated on a horse and was accompanied by friends and relatives who were dancing with gay abandon to the tune of the band accompanying us.
As we proceeded deeper and deeper into the forest it became dark due the thick foliage which did not allow the sun rays to permeate into the forest. Our spirits started flagging due to the ominous atmosphere of the forest. Soon the merriment ceased and we were just ambling along in a hurry to reach the other end of the forest,’ said Grandpa whose tone became tense as he recited the story further.
‘What happened after that?’ we echoed in chorus. ‘Did you reach home safely?’
‘Somehow I could sense the presence of somebody else in the forest besides us,’ said Grandpa. This made us even more curious. We sat closer to him as it was getting cold in the night and also did not want to miss a single word of what Grandpa had to say.
‘We were walking in double file with the armed guards flanking us from all sides. Suddenly before we realized we were surrounded from all sides by fierce looking dacoits,’ said Grandpa who was suddenly looking very serious.
‘What happened then?’ we all asked Grandpa.
‘The armed guards were overpowered before they knew what had hit them. Their arms were taken away from them and those who tried to resist were beheaded. There was pandemonium in our camp and people tried to run helter-skelter. Before we knew what has happened, we were rounded up by the dacoits who ordered us to quietly give up our belongings,’ said Grandpa who was now puffing his hookah with great aplomb.
‘Did you put up a fight?’ I asked Grandpa.
‘That was out of question. The dacoits were so fierce and menacing that we quietly gave up our gold, ornaments and other belongings to them without any resistance in sheer fright.’
‘Most of the dacoits had their face covered by hoods but their leader was a tall and athletic looking fellow. I could make out that he was the leader by his demeanor. Suddenly his scarf dropped for a moment and I immediately recognized him from his photos which I had seen in all the local newspapers. It was Sheru Dave, the most wanted criminal and dacoit in Gujarat. He quickly covered his face when he saw me staring at him in awe and fright.’
‘What about Grandma?’ asked Shilpa.
‘I was coming to that. One of the dacoits went towards the palanquin in which your Grandma was huddling in fright and tried to pull her out of the palanquin. He asked her to hand over her ornaments and dowry as he could make out that she was a bride. Sheru quickly moved towards him and slapped him hard!’ said Grandpa.
‘Why did he do that?’ we all asked Grandpa in consternation.
‘To our shock and utter surprise Sheru abused the dacoit and told him to apologize to your Grandma.’
‘That is very strange. Why did he possibly do that?’ asked Jalpa .
‘Yes. Yes. Why did he do that?’ we all echoed together asking Grandpa for an explanation.
‘Let me finish the story. Sheru had a code of conduct which he strictly followed. He never took anything from a newly-wed bride. In fact he delved into his pocket and gave your Grandma a few gold coins and gave her a blessing for a long wedded life!’ said Grandpa.
‘He could have easily taken the dowry and your Grandma’s ornaments or he could have possibly have carried her off somewhere. But such was the code of ethics of most dacoits then,’ said Grandpa with a smile.
‘Then why call Sheru a dacoit? Did he not give Grandma something instead of taking from her?’ asked Mitesh.
‘I was coming to that. Never judge a book by its cover. This was applicable in the case of Sheru. Sheru had negative shades, and this is possibly why he became a dacoit. But he strictly followed his principles and lived by them. There were a lot of other dacoits who also lived a principled life,’ said Grandpa.
‘Then I fail to understand why they became such fierce outlaws?’ queried Mitesh.
‘Society,’ said Grandpa. ‘The cruelty of society does not allow people who live by their own principles to survive peacefully. They are harassed to such an extent that they are forced to part ways from society,’ said Grandpa sanguinely.
‘I don’t understand,’ said Mitesh.
‘Yes, please explain the meaning of what you are saying?’ we all echoed together.
‘You will understand the full meaning of what I am saying after you grow up. Just remember this story for the rest of your lives,’ said Grandpa extinguishing the tobacco in his hookah signaling us that it was time to go to bed.
Several years have passed and Grandpa is no more. But, whenever, Rahul, Mitesh, Shipla, Jalpa and I meet, we never fail to discuss his stories with our children and hope that they, in turn, will tell those stories to their own children and grandchildren!