I recently visited Amritsar. It was 23 years since I last visited it. The time gap is important for many reasons.
This is the city where my great-grandfather (paternal) settled when he moved from Lahore. This is the city in which my maternal grandfather lived all his life and before him, his father did. This is the city where both my parents were born. I spent many summer holidays in my maternal grandfather’s place. The only time I contracted Jaundice (1974), was in this city. I remember its smells, its open drains, its filth, my grandfather’s house which didn’t have a civilised sewage system. I hated the city for many reasons.
But I also remembered many things about it. I remember Jallianwala Bagh, long before the memorial came up. I remember as a 9-10 year old, running my fingers around the bullet holes. I remember peering into the well into which many jumped to avoid bullets. I remember being told that my grandfather’s brother-in-law was in the park when General Dyer opened fire and that he was one of the lucky ones to have survived.
I remember the Golden Temple where a beautiful monument stood in the midst of a dirty pond. I remember crowded streets and horse-drawn tongas. I remember a temple near my grandfather’s house where I was fed some sort of sand-like substance while the priest hit my forehead with peacock feathers. Oh yes, I had many reasons to hate the city.
23 years ago, I was in the city for 2 days. My grandfather had sold his house in the heart of the city and moved to a newer area, on the outskirts. I was told this was the right thing to do. Militancy was at its peak in the state and those 2 days were spent attending a family wedding. That visit was marked by me going from my grandfather’s new house (he had passed away sometime ago) to the wedding venue and back. I remember the commotion when 2 sikh gentlemen entered (the wedding venue). People panicked and it took someone courage to find out who they were. It turned out they were invitees from the groom side. They sat sheepishly in a corner, almost looking like guilty school children. I remember that there isn’t anything worth remembering about the city.
And yet I wanted to visit the city; it was personal. It was my desire to connect with my roots. In some ways it was to cleanse some of the guilt I felt about not having visited the city. And I didn’t even know if I felt guilty or not.
I arrived at the train station and the cleansing process began and quite differently than what I thought it would be. The station was clean, cleaner than any other I had seen before. I set eyes on relatives I hadn’t seen in decades; some were born after my last visited. I was captivated by the roads, broad and clean. I approached the walled city and was mesmerised at the order I saw. My cousin drove me through ever narrowing streets to come to a halt near a school in the old city. The car was parked close to a garbage dumpster. It was the most orderly dumpster I had ever seen. We got out and walked. The streets were narrow, but they were clean. The open sewage drains were still there but there was no stench, just crystal clear water flowing through them.
The first stop was Kesar Da Dhaba. It nestles in the by-lanes of a city I no longer recognised. It was air-conditioned and immaculately clean. My cousins ordered food and like the typical city-dwelling-pseudo-health-freak I wanted to eat just one paratha. The thali arrived with 2. I diligently removed one and placed it on a clean plate. The fare was vegetarian and simple: dal makhani, chopped onions, a side of chick-pea curry. I dipped a piece of the ghee ridden paratha in the little katori holding the ghee laden dal makhani. As the combination hit my taste buds, my eyes closed in reverence. My mouth chewed silently and my senses were overwhelmed. I opened my eyes and instinctively reached for the second paratha. There was no way, I would let this one pass!
This set the tone for the entire visit. I was to be overwhelmed many times over. But my story would be incomplete without talking about the one walk that is now firmly a pilgrimage I undertook.
Holi was celebrated on the second day I was in Amritsar. On that day, I insisted, and my cousin walked me to my grandfather’s old house in the walled city. Since it was Holi, the streets were littered with colour and there were many coloured faces lining the street. I noted the route and returned the next day, with my camera.
I looked every bit the tourist in my shorts, t-shirt and dark glasses. But I was a man on a mission. I walked the streets from the point where I remember a tonga stand once stood; today it is an auto-rickshaw stand. The lane was broader than I remembered, and it was cleaner than I had ever imagined. I walked the stretch with a reverence in my heart. I looked at the houses, the shops, the signage, probably searching for signs I had seen eons ago. And I couldn’t remember anything.
I walked past Kanhaya Sweets with its sign stating that they had been around since 1946. I thought I remembered seeing it as a child. I saw a sewing school that stated it had been around since the 1950s and I wondered if this was the one my mother attended as a young girl. I approached my grandfather’s house and I felt a lump in my throat. The door was still the same, the green stained glass windows were still the same, the open sewage system that ran from the house was still the same and yet nothing was the same. It didn’t have my grandfather or my uncles living there anymore. I didn’t have the moral right to ring the doorbell and assert my right to enter. I couldn’t see the winding staircase where as a child I ran up to the roof. I couldn’t see the odd central courtyard that was covered with iron bars. It allowed the light to come through from the roof but prevented me from falling between floors. The lump in my throat was joined by blurring eyes that threatened to cry. While I stood there soaking in the feeling I noticed that the air was different too. It was surprisingly clean. The garbage dump that stood in the corner was long gone. I wanted to stay there a bit longer but I knew I couldn’t. This place was special to me and I know I couldn’t explain this to anyone. I walked past the house a few times. And then quietly walked away from it, this time past it, turning the corner to find another exit route.
I walked past another shop with a cauldron of boiling oil in the front. It had a vaguely familiar aroma of frying samosas. As I walked past it, I couldn’t help but notice a black and white photo on the wall. The face looked familiar, I couldn’t be sure. It was probably of the owner long gone but I think his shop was once opposite my grandfather’s house. I couldn’t be sure, nor did I think the current owner cared if it was. I walked away silently and I thought I hadn’t drawn attention. A voice from above me called out to the man frying the samosas. It enquired about the ‘foreigner’ who stopped by. Was he interested in eating from his shop, the person asked in chaste Punjabi. I couldn’t help but smile at being called a ‘foreigner’. In many ways it was true. I had lost my roots, perhaps longer than I should have. But what no one knew was I had found them.
I returned from the city with a strange mix of sadness and joy. I missed my grandfather and I missed my grandmother. I connected with my childhood and in my child like glee I saw the simplicity and complexity of life. I yearn to go back and I want to enter the house. If I do, I know the pilgrimage will be complete…