In which Chennai-bred Priyadarshini Paitandy visits her maternal village and is warmly welcomed by a 97-year-old grand uncle
I am perched on a bullock cart, zealously guarding a selection of green leafy vegetables that I plucked at a farm. I hardly know what they are but they are going to be part of lunch today. The next thing on my to-do list is to milk a cow and help women slap cow dung on to walls. Looks like these are going to remain on the list forever. I am in Bhajoli, my mother's ancestral village.
For a half Bengali-half Punjabi like me, embarrassingly, the only Punjabi trait I display is the love for paratha and white butter. So this trip, as you can see, is all about travelling across Punjab and getting to know the culture unique to my maternal side.
The expedition starts from Delhi on a day the mercury is lazy to rise and the sun, curled up beneath layers of smog and mist, is in no mood to shine. A six-hour train journey from Delhi to Amritsar is the wisest thing to do if you want to avoid a ten hour long drive by road. But father wants me to “experience everything”. So here we are bundled into a car, trundling past trees, villages, towns and dhabas. The decision is to not waste time halting for short tea/cigarette breaks, a habit most annoying that the patriarch of my family is notorious for. But when some Sikh men wave yellow flags and gently bow before the car, there is not much we can do but stop. “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh,” they say as they serve generous helpings of bread pakoda. We thank them and drive on.
“This is part of Guru Gobind Singh's birthday celebrations. He is the tenth Sikh Guru. To commemorate his birthday, people offer free food to everybody in and around their vicinity, and to everybody passing by. This is their way of doing sewa,” informs Sukhwinder Singh, our driver. Further down we notice more flags and small tents by the roadside where more food is being served. We stop at another. This one's serving halwa and roti.
After what seems like an eternity, we reach Bhajoli. Sukhwinder drives into a narrow passage off the main road. The partly tar road swerves and in an instant one is transported from the busy highway into a peaceful haven of greenery. It's now a narrow dusty road that cuts across a large field. “Sarson ka khet?” I ask. Having watched Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge a record number of times I believe Punjab means green fields and yellow sarson ke phool. Apparently not. “It's a wheat field,” corrects mother.
“A lot of Hindi films have been shot here. Singh is Kingg, Namastey London...” lists out Sukhwinder. By now we are going around in circles. Sukhwinder looks confused and there is not a soul around who we can ask for directions, except for a bleating herd of goats. After ambling along we stumble upon a house in the middle of nowhere. An old lady, who we refer to as “beeji” like in most Karan Johar films, steps out and helps us with directions. Past the pond, left from a gurdwara… and we are lost again. We stop a group of boys cycling by and they helpfully lead us till the house. My mother leaps out enthusiastically for this is the house she used to visit as a child.
By now I am exhausted and all I can visualise is a spa and a glass of ice tea, when suddenly I am engulfed in a bear hug. The ladies from the neighbourhood have come over to welcome us. Each one warmly hugs me and pulls my cheek like we've been Facebook buddies all these years. And now moving towards me at great speed is a white bearded man in a blue turban. If you go by his wrinkles he seems ancient but if you see him walk and talk he doesn't seem a day more than 60. That is my oldest relative. He is 97-years-old and my late grandfather's brother. He encloses my hand in a firm grip and shakes it vigorously. “Welcome home beti,” he says.
We are handed big glasses full of milk as we make ourselves comfortable on a khatiya. This is fresh milk and the backyard has about a dozen cows, we are told. As I slowly sip on it trying to get used to the strong flavour, I hear a loud moo. One of the cows has found its way to the front and it's nuzzling up to my father. She sways coyly and looks at us as if to ask if we are having a good time. The old man of the house then proudly takes us on a tour of the place. There are open meadows, water bodies, a couple and their family is hard at work making jaggery. There are various flavours too — masala, plain, ajwain, jeera...
Dinner that night is roti, ghee, rajma, chicken and gud with a Patiala peg of brandy to beat the cold. After a good meal and a good drink — the essential prerequisites for a good night's sleep — we now huddle into bed under layers of quilts. The next morning I wake up to strange sounds. Thankfully, it's not as bad as the shrieking of the alarm clock. There is the mooing of cows and the unrecognisable sound of a bird. I tip toe to the balcony only to find a plump peacock sitting on our swing and pecking at food. “They come here every morning for breakfast,” laughs the grand uncle. I whip out my phone for a quick photograph but the snooty bird hurriedly departs in a huff. Nevertheless I sit down for my breakfast which thankfully is mooli ke parathe with a liberal dollop of white butter and a glass of banana milkshake — all organic. As I sit in the winter sun, enjoying my first meal of the day, I wonder if I should make Bhajoli my annual winter haunt.