First Story from Pune: An Old House and a Reunion

A tiny old man, face wizened and eyes rheumy with age, stands on the road in front of his house. He waves with a childlike smile, delighted at the prospect of meeting a man he first came to know nearly thirty-five years ago. My father touches his feet and according to his tradition, the doctor touches my father’s: in the Professor’s family, they believe that salutations are meant not for the body, but for the soul within. Don’t be surprised if you see an elderly person touch a five-year-old’s feet, he tells me later.

My father first met the Professor at his office at AIIMS, Delhi in 1979. The Professor introduced him to the teaching of Swami Muktananda of Ganeshpuri, and to spirituality in general; over the years, I have heard of the influence this very learned Professor had on my father’s life, but little did I know that I’d meet him one day.

Thanks to his son’s presence on Facebook (a shot in the dark because we were sending a message to a stranger), we managed to trace the Professor’s whereabouts to one of the older parts of Pune. Maharashtrian culture comes alive in the various Peths of this city, unpretentious and very plain, strikingly similar to every other Indian small town you can think of, but much cleaner. The roads are packed tight with shops and narrow staircases leading into the recesses of dimly lit shops. The crumbling grey facades and steep, box-like balconies remind me of Calcutta. Vendors sell just about everything from cheap anklets to strings of jasmine on the pavements. A queue is beginning to form in front of the Shani temple, this being a Saturday and therefore the most auspicious day of the week to propitiate the God whom we readily hold responsible for all our troubles. However, in the popularity ratings, Ganesha beats all the other deities of the Hindu pantheon hands down. Pink, pot-bellied and generous, he sits in glass cases, niches and little shrines in almost every street. The auto driver slows in front of a crowded temple to pay quick obeisance: this is the Dagadusheth Halwai Ganesha, he tells us.

But where does the Professor live? I don’t quite know what to expect in this shop-lined quarter, but I’m not prepared for what I actually see.

Meeting us on the road, the Professor pushes open a door in a wall to lead us into an open courtyard, which rises onto a room-like porch filled with furniture and liberally strewn with books of all sizes. The intricately carved sofas are made of mahogany; a heavy teak-writing desk stands at one end and a tightly-packed bookcase at the other. Sepia-tinted pictures of ancestors adorn the walls and two screens are rolled up against the black wooden frame of the porch. A certificate in Latin, dating back to 1938 and commemorating the FRCS fellowship earned by the Professor’s sister, is proudly mounted beside the bookcase. The wooden rafters are painted white and reinforced with steel strips: who wants to worry about cracks in the beams in the middle of the night? Despite its niggling disadvantages, the house has more character than any new flat I can think of: not surprising, perhaps, considering it was built 240 years ago and has lived through many of the turning points of Indian history, under different rulers and administrators.

Now, however, it seems to be at the mercy of the cats that walk freely through the rooms and sleep where they choose. In the backyard, the Professor shows us a concrete slab under which a well once stood. An amber-and-white cat surveys us from the other side, watching warily to ensure we don’t encroach upon its territory. A black-and-white cat weaves among our strange feet on its way to the living room, where it climbs on to the sofa in one fluid move and curls up comfortably.

“The well was 18 feet deep,” he tells us. “When I was a boy, I tied a stone to a piece of string and let it in to measure the depth. The water used to be very clean. But we had it tested recently, and it is contaminated now.” He doesn‘t complain, the wisdom of his years coming through in his refusal to bemoan changed circumstances. He talks of the susceptibility of wooden houses to fire, of the fears during the World Wars in London and Hamburg. He points to the newly refurbished kitchen and tells us that it was a cowshed in happier times, and “Gomata” used to be taken for walks around the city till his Grandfather grew too frail to do so.

Picking up the phone to make a call, the Professor turns the pages of a 1987 diary, in which irregular quadrilaterals mark off names and addresses collected over time. There is an air of antiquity about everything in this house: but despite his advanced age, the Professor is very alert and reels various names and incidents off the top of his head. Spirituality, politics, medicine, geography: he switches topics with effortless ease, making me wish I had a fraction of all that knowledge on my fingertips. His wife listens and adds her comments occasionally; she is weak after a fall she suffered last year, but eager to participate in the conversation. We eat ice cream and talk of our lives.

The long leaves of the ornamental plants on the porch rustle in the wind. The dark shutters on the barred windows seem to eavesdrop and the walls seem to harbour secrets in their various nooks and niches. AO Hume and Darwin watch from their exalted positions in the company of the ancestors. The sunlight lingers half-heartedly in the courtyard, loath to leave but forced to by the approaching dusk. This old house, like most others, is magical. It is a repository of ghosts and romances, and perhaps it’ll tell tales of us when we are gone.

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