Children

On the track of history

I have found the spot!” was all he said. Appa had a peculiar interest, looking for ‘old’ buildings. The term he used was ‘heritage’. Wherever we went, he made it a point to stop and poke around buildings. I, on the other hand, had only one interest — food.

“Spot for the best strawberries?” I asked hopefully. Appa had said that Mahabaleshwar was the land of strawberries and cream. But, I could not see any strawberries.

Do strawberries grow on trees? I wondered. I think it’s a creeper. I tried to remember my EVS classes.

“Childrennnnn, a creeper is a plant that grows on the ground. Why? Becaussssse it has a weeeak steam. Some examples of creeeeepers are pumpkin, watermelon and strawberries.” Kanakamani ma’am with her flaring nostrils had droned on in her hissy voice.

I had better keep my eyes on ground level, I figured. Just as I spotted the uphill turn for Mahabaleshwar, Appa turned towards Wai.

“Wai? Why therei? What about Mahabaleshwar? And, more importantly, strawberries?”

“All in good time,” said Appa. This was a favourite line of parents. “We will see,” was another. Parents and their vague answers! As we turned off from the big road into a narrow road, I spotted stalls selling strawberries. Even a giant plastic strawberry that said, “Pick your own strawberries.’

“Let’s stop, Appa.”

No answer from either parent. They were busy with their usual discussion. “So much beauty in India. Look at that greenery. Why do filmmakers go to shoot in foreign locales?” said Amma. Her pink hat with flowers and a purple ribbon bobbed about. She loved looking like a tourist. I thought it was silly to wear a hat inside a car. But Amma was like that.

I sulked. No one noticed. What could be more important than juicy strawberries?

“Just three kilometres now,” said Appa.

Menawali. I saw a hand-painted board and an arrow mark. It looked like any other village. I wasn’t sure if it was worth driving all the way from Pune. But I knew better than to say anything.

Restored history

Soon, we had arrived with not a strawberry in sight. “This is the Nana Phadnavis wada. It’s around 400 years old!”

“What’s a wada? I asked, squinting my eyes. “Anything to do with medu vadas?”

“A wada is an ancient ancestral home with inner courtyards. Nana Phadnavis was a minister of the Maratha Empire. “He was gifted this village — Menawali — on the banks of the Krishna River in 1768,” said Appa, reading a board.

“Such fertile land, he must have been a favourite,” said Amma, her pink hat fluttering.

A very sweet guide told us all about the parts of the wada. She said that the Phadnavis family still owned the property, but funds were hard to come by. But there were doing their best to restore and maintain the heritage building.

It was beautiful. The arches and the teak pillars. I imagined all the important work that must have happened and the lives and secrets these walls must have known. Within the inner courtyard, there was a secret room (a darbar hall) with a tiny door and a steep flight of stairs. The guide said, “This was for very important meetings so that no one would eavesdrop.”

Appa almost hit his head, trying to enter. Amma giggled. I sat for a minute at Nana Phadnavis’s desk and asked Amma to take a photograph.

“Look Amma, artwork on the walls,” I pointed.

“Those are called murals, kanna. The womenfolk would paint the walls according to happy occasions — festivals, weddings and births.”

I peered. Most of it was fading, but some of it still remained. It was pretty.

I walked around from room to room — the floor felt different on my bare feet. It was made of clay and cow dung. I felt like a princess. I wondered if Nana Phadnavis had liked strawberries. Did he go to nearby Mahabaleshwar to eat them? Maybe he liked mangoes. I stared at his portrait on the wall. He definitely looked like a strawberry person to me.

“The British introduced strawberries in Mahabaleshwar in the 19th century, almost 100 years after the wada was built,” said Appa. “It is unlikely Nana Phadnavis had tasted strawberries.”

“I think he looks like a seetaphal person,” said Amma.

Sweet business

Appa smiled and led us to the back of the wada. There was the Krishna River — mellow and gurgling softly — and a ghat with two temples. I was quiet. “Does heritage always mean buildings?

Appa looked at me. “Good question! It could be monuments, clothes, objects and culture.”

“Even food?”

“Yes, even food. Anything that is a tradition is part of our heritage — a way of life.”

“How different life must have been 400 years ago!” I exclaimed. “Tell me more.”

Appa’s eyes twinkled. “Sure, sure! But first an important business.”

“What?”

“Strawberries and cream,” said Appa and high-fived me.

Later that evening, as we scrambled out of the car, stuffed with strawberries, I heard Appa say, “Next we should explore Ratnagiri. It has the Thibaw palace — where a king all the way from Burma lived captive. And do you know what else Ratnagiri is famous for? Aapus — Alphonso Mangoes!”

Now that sounded like a good combination — mangoes and palaces!


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Printable version | May 9, 2022 10:14:46 am | https://www.thehindu.com/children/on-the-track-of-history/article65375024.ece