My Magical Vidarbha

In his famous epic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about a mythical town abutting the marshland of Colombia, where people had never seen ice and where the only source of knowledge of the outside world were the gypsies, who brought with them every year advancing technological innovations like magnets and telescopes and chemicals dissolving metals.

Nagpur, the capital of the fertile Vidarbha region, could have been such a town. Sure, we lived in a post-British independent India in a city with three major newspapers: one in Marathi, one in English, and one in Hindi.

But if you looked at the day-to-day lives of our relatives and neighbors, it would have seemed as if we were living on a solitary island in the middle of a marsh.

And the gypsies were there too, arriving once a year, dressed in colorful skirts or pantaloons, singing and dancing, and looking quite exotic with their high cheekbones and pointed features. Only after becoming an American would I discover that the gypsies were originally from India.

I had seen ice in Nagpur, but only on wooden carts that vendors pushed down the street in the middle of summer, piled with reeds of fresh sugarcane and slices of lemon crushed in metallic juicers with crankshafts. The vendor would serve the foamy drink in tall glasses to street folk, as my brother and I would watch with mouthwatering envy. My mother had strictly forbidden us to eat ice because it contained germs that would give us sore throats.

Once in a while, Dinoo Uncle, who was still a bachelor, would come by on his bicycle and take me on a ride to the outlying suburbs, where tidy gardens bloomed with roses and night jasmine. It was on one those rides that I discovered flowers. Until then, flowers had been accessible to me only at dilapidated stalls outside of temples where they were sold in wilting packages wrapped in dried leaves, stem-less and lifeless. Flowers blooming on plants was a conscious discovery and I remember it vividly.

A restaurant, which we called a hotel, was a rare experience as well, and I remember the first time I was taken to one. Dinoo Uncle piled a bunch of us nephews and nieces into a cycle rickshaw one day and took us to a restaurant where we sat at high tables with marble tops, eating ice cream out of stemmed glass cups. On the way back, we made a tacit agreement not to tell my mother, for restaurants and street food, like ice cream, were clearly out of bounds.

Apart from the radio, which I would circle every day to find the little people making noises inside, technology was limited to bare light bulbs that hung from cords from the ceiling of every room, attracting mobs of lizards and insects. My aunt Vimal once took me to the house of a friend of a friend who had acquired a new telephone so she could hear her own voice. It was an old-fashioned black instrument with a dial, but to me it seemed like the most elegant of instruments. I watched in awe as Aunt Vimal shouted over and over into the receiver, trying to communicate with a friend at the other end of the line. Walking home afterwards, she fretted and fumed that the sound was so bad that she hadn’t heard a thing.

It wasn’t until I was in college that on rare occasions, I would go over to Dr. Khaddakar’s house next door and make a phone call to my father at his office to convey some emergency message.

Our households back then were only slightly less primitive than cave dwellings.

Meals were made from scratch and the definition of scratch did not include store-bought flour, but rather wheat, which was taken to the mill down the road in a large aluminum container to be ground to the specified consistency. Vegetables and fruit were bought fresh daily, for no one owned a refrigerator. Kulfi was made in little containers hung in the clay pot we used for drinking water in the summertime, but for the life of me I could not figure out how something could freeze at room temperature, notwithstanding my later knowledge of latent heat.

The first time I saw a television was in the Congress Session in Nagpur, where it became an instant hit. But I would not see regular television programming until years later, when at a physics summer school in New Delhi, I would watch the Sunday night program of hit movie songs for an entire month.

Airplanes beckoned to me every day, with the flashing beacon of the Sonegaon airport, which lay miles beyond the meadows and farms facing our house on the edge of town. I would not actually see one, however, until, as an adult, I was taken to Kashmir by plane by an American pen pal. Yet, we could sense the future, as we lay on our cots in the front yard on summer nights, when no one in Nagpur slept indoors. We would watch my father point out the Sputnik going by.

Alas, those were the days, and despite the deprivation and the hardship, why is it that I feel so nostalgic for that era on the cusp of modernity when the Internet or the PC could not have been imagined, and when we breathed, not read about, a magical reality.

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