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Where India really shines!

January 30, 2004

Have you ever lived in one of those small towns that you pass through when making a trip from one city to another? You know the ones where you stop to grab a bite, or go to the loo, or buy a packet of wafers from a 'general store.'

You are struck with the messy bus stop -- aw! those miserable state transport buses. The deafening sound of a bottle green generator puffing black fumes into the air. The hand pumps with children hanging on its long arm to draw water out.

You look at all that, take a breather and thank god that Volvos have started plying on the routes you take to places that are too far for your AC medium sized car. You also thank god that the city you live in, touch wood, makes it to the headlines when there is a two hour power breakdown. You also thank the heavens that the month-long water crisis in your apartment block -- only six hours of water in the morning and three in the evening -- is finally over.

Lord be praised, there's 24 hours water in the flush tank now.

But if you have ever lived in a small town, at any stage, for however long, there is every chance that you may like the experience. If you were me, you would even love it.

There is such an endearing charm about small town India. The regularity and the even flow of life. Places, shops and people that have changed and still remain so unchanged.

Like Dhobiji who came home each week from the time my mother was a little girl. We did not know his name. Salaam Dhobiji, that's how the kids in the house greeted him and he called both mommy and me 'baby.'

He would have a cup of tea, take the rickshaw fare to take his bundle home and leave. It was a ritual he followed his entire life, till he died last year.

My uncle went for his funeral. And mommy stopped giving clothes to Dhobiji's son Madan, who took the mantle from his father. "No one can wash and iron clothes the way my dhobi did," she says and now depends on her semi automatic washing machine and Priti, the maid.

Tata General Stores

From selling kerosene lamps to anti wrinkle creams -- elder brother Guptaji has sat on one end of the shop and Krishnaji on the other, for almost 35 years.

Manning the store from those two ends, the brothers have sold goods to half the town with great skill and continue to be the most thriving provision store. They call my mum didi and papa sir and have supplied them with their entire cache of toiletries from Tuhina [a body lotion in the mid 1970s] to Garnier hair colour currently.

In a relationship spanning over three decades, they were often invited home -- mostly for Christmas -- and Krishnaji would smile courteously. They came home two or three times.

Even when my grandfather died.

Krishnaji was standing with the many who had come to pay their respects. He was not family. Neither a friend. He had just come to say goodbye to an old man who had bought Banphool hair oil from his shop regularly. When Nana was laid to rest, he wore his best shirt and trouser. He also had Banphool oil in his silver-gray hair.

Kedar chacha

Papa and Kedar chacha have been childhood friends. He comes to visit my dad every day. In the summer they sit out in the garden. In the winter they sit out by the fire that dad loves to build.

They are not the sort of friends who hop into their Marutis and go out to do things on their own. This friendship is not about taking short holidays with each other's families either. But it is a bond that's solid.

They talk about their day; these days more about Kedar chacha's walks -- which dad thinks is absurd. "Four hours in the morning and four in the evening, you are overdoing it," says my father who does all his bank work on foot himself.

Kedar chacha's kids are married and have moved to other cities. He lives with his wife and will spend his evenings with his friend like he has done for 36 years till the time he moves out of town to the house he bought in the state capital a few years ago.

When that happens, the one man who will miss him most is a retired geography professor who once sat beside him in a distant village school. Over the years, so many of dad's friends have retired and moved out, but then none became a part of his life like Kedar chacha.

Sanjay Kumar and Abdul

Over a decade ago, Sanjay arrived as a construction worker when the house was being renovated. Since the work was done in batches, he became a regular feature year after year. When the work was finally over he just continued coming.

He comes on his cycle from his village an hour away and leaves in the night. During Christmas he stays the nights. In a steel container he brings milk from his cows and is paid for it at the end of the month. When no one is in the kitchen, he pours the milk into a vessel, turns the stove on and watches till it boils.

He tends the garden, walks the dogs, operates the generator, shoos the monkeys and runs errands. He can multi task. He has deep insights into rearing cows and buffaloes and once cried like a baby because his buffalo was sick and hadn't eaten for three days.

The buffalo came around on day four. Mum did not have to ask; Sanjay's smile said it all.

Abdul, the cycle rickshaw puller, who often took mum to the unmotorable roads of the town, did not speak much to Sanjay. A loner, Abdul wasn't one to chit-chat unsolicited. Be it Sanjay or any of the helpers around the house.

During the day he would ply passengers and in the evening take his earnings to his family. The money was too little for his wife and kids. Sometimes his shirt was torn, his lungi worn out. But he never complained. Never asked for money, not even after he took someone from our family around.

"Give me whatever you want," he would say.

One day he told a moving story. Abdul and his wife were its lead characters.

His wife was travelling in a train, where she found a baby abandoned. She asked around and no one knew anything about the child. The woman, who had four daughters of her own, did the first thing that came to her mind.

She brought the baby home.

Abdul wasn't with her then, but he was there when she arrived with a new baby in her arms. He took the infant in, not calculating how he would feed, clothe and bring her up. Like his wife, he could not turn his face away from a helpless little girl.

He was poor, but not without a soul.

There are corners of India -- in little and big towns, in villages -- where ordinary folk rise from trying circumstances and do extraordinary things. They do it ever so often. They come to our homes every day, sometimes as friends, sometimes as 'domestic help' and make our lives what they are.

They do this so routinely that we don't even know that we have stopped noticing them. But they touch our lives every day. These are some that touched mine in a small Indian town, I am sure you'll take a minute and think of those who touched yours.

Senior Associate Editor Archana Masih will contribute a regular column to these pages


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Archana Masih

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