When I woke up in India for the first time, it was cool and misty and the backyard was full of monkeys. That was nearly a month ago in New Delhi and since then I have filled an entire leather bound journal (the only acceptable kind) with notes, stories and maps, phone numbers, railway bookings and diagrams of different branches of my family tree. Selfishly I have so far kept all those notes to myself and this is the first time I have turned on the internet machine, but now the times have changed, Grandpa and I have parted ways and I find myself in my friend’s apartment in Mumbai with wifi and more importantly AC, so I thought I’d give you a little update.
For a start, I’ve done the thing I set out to do- I listened to Grandpa tell the stories of his life in India in each of the places where the events took place. The tape was rolled, the stories were told and I have an awesome book in the works. “Mission accomplished” as as my travel buddy would say. Very quickly though, I realized that there is more for me in India than a story: I have a huge family filled with people who have embraced us, taken us in and lovingly fed me more aloo paranthas and mattar paneer than I ever thought possible. Over and over again I have had delightful little moments when I realized people I was meeting for the first time look like me, share instincts, tastes and habits with me, and have had lives full of love and loss, personal triumphs and obstacles overcome. As it turns out, the family history is my history, but also the history of all the people I met here. Every time we sat down to chai, the family gathered around and started listening, and in the morning there were eight of us in a van headed to one of the locations we hoped to track down.
In Sanawar, we visited the Lawrence Royal Military School where Grandpa, his parents and his two unmarried sisters lived under a veranda for the first couple months after partition. Grandpa’s brother worked at the British prep school, and was able to get the family onto the poperty even though “dogs and Indians” were not allowed, but never into decent housing. The gymnasium where their two sisters were married was still standing, and we went inside.
In Amballa City, we found the plot of land Grandpa’s father was given by the governement in exchange for the land left behind in Lahore. In his papers there was a will written by his mother in Urdu (that we were all surprised he could read) describing the plot of land, the block and house number, and a description of the house (two rooms, walls of uncooked bricks and mud plaster) and the fact that it was across the street from a certain havelli. We found the plot of land and a very old man who did not remember my great-grandfather, but could confirm that the crumbling building across the street was in fact the havelli described.
In New Delhi, we visited Connaught Place where Grandpa did a breif stint at an architectural firm before getting his first real engineering job, and 73 Kalka Nagar, the bungalow where he lived once he began working on the construction of the Bhakra Dam, one of the first major public works projects created by modern India. Outside the bungalow, he pointed out the place where he ran to get a taxi to take Grandma to the hospital the night my father was born.
To get into the property of Bhakra Dam we pretended to be veterenarians attending an animal welfare conference on the other side of the Dam site and with the help of a friend of my uncle and a stealthy driver somehow managed to stand just above the dam and listen to Grandpa tell the story of the time he was liason between the design office and Le Corbusier, who came to give an architectural treatment of the dam after completing the layout of Chandigarh. 60 years later, Grandpa still remembers the technical details of the dam construction and all the details of his argument with Le Corbusier about whether the dam should be designed for utility (Grandpa) or beauty (Corbusier).
I’ve started calling the first stage of the journey 28&88 because more than anything it was about spending time with the guy. We have traveled together wonderfully, accomplished our ridiculously ambitious goals, dipped our bodies in the holy waters of the Golden Temple, pulled an all-nighter on a sleeper train. Despite the sixty year gap and our different skills (he speaks Punjabi, I can see the buttons on the phone) and different needs (afternoon nap, laps around the cricket field, respectively) it turns out we are pretty similar dudes with great love for each other, our family and the art of storytelling.
I’d tell you more, but at least twenty minutes have passed, which means I’m due for the next cup of chai. Maybe I’ll write from Varanasi.
28&88 Signing out.