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Tulsi tales

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Gossip and true stories all have their place where storytelling in concerned

Before the ubiquitous TV invaded the homes of the rich and poor alike, people passed the long evenings before dinner by telling tales while sitting in the courtyard, or on the balcony or terrace. There was Rafael Baba who was never tired of relating the incident of when a porcupine ravaged the vegetable field of St. Stephen’s College where he served as a gardener. The predator was finally trapped and taken away by the sweepers who were fond of Sehi Gosht (as porcupine meat is called).

Ramzani, the ex-cook of the Baptist Mission School in Ludlow Castle Road (now Raj Niwas Marg), liked talking about the time when he prepared Jal Farezi (a spicy mutton dish) for the principal, who was tired of eating the “bland” English dinner of Roast Meat, Fried Potatoes and Bread Pudding. After the ‘Sahib’ tasted his preparation, he began to sweat because of the abundance of chillies, but nevertheless acquired a liking for it and always had Jal Farezi on his dining table.

At Thakur Nahar Singh’s house on Probyn Road (now Deshbandhu Gupta Road) the stories were about the First War of Independence in 1857, when his grandfather defied the British during the attack on Flagstaff Tower on the Ridge. As for the family of Elias Sahib, the incident at the house of a lady doctor (Dr Ulrick) was the subject of much mirth. Once there was a riot in Pipal Mandi area near the Agra Fort and a detachment of ‘Gora Tommies’ (British mercenaries, as they were deprecatingly called) was sent to quell it. Pleased with their efforts to save her dispensary, Dr Ulrick invited them for lunch and served Besani rotis (made of gram flour) and pumpkin sabzi. She left them to their meal and when she returned she was dumbfounded to find the rotis all lined up against the dining room wall while the sabzi had been eaten. The soldiers had taken the rotis for a kind of Indian dinning plates and so did not eat them.

Mrs Rawat of Wazirpura used to talk of the time when her husband was away on World War II duty and she was left alone with her three children. To keep them amused she would tell a bedtime story every day, invoking the tulsi plant in her courtyard as a silent witness to yarns of rajas and princesses of Rajput states.

It was C.A. Kincaid, an ICS officer, who wrote his Tales of the Tulsi Plant. Later, after nearly a hundred years, Prof Saros Cowasjee has come out with his version of ‘new tales of the tulsi plant’: The Oxford Anthology of Raj Stories. The tale-tellers are mostly British Civil Servants: Philip Mason and Leonard Woolf (who married the writer Virginia), for instance. There are others like Rudyard Kipling, John Lang, Flora Annie Steel, Bithia Mary Croker, Alice Perrin, Maud Diver, Christine Weston, Edmund Candler, Otto Rothfield.

Lang was an Australian poet who made India his home before the ‘Mutiny’ and lies buried in Mussoorie. His tomb was discovered by Ruskin Bond in 1960. Lang was the one who went all the way to England to plead the case of the Rani of Jhansi before she revolted against the East India Company. A good lawyer, he however lost the case and felt greatly disheartened.

Saros carried his love for Raj tales from Agra to Canada, where he taught English as Professor Emertius at the University of Regina. Born in Bombay, Kipling entered the very soul of India and churned out tale after tale with great flourish and conviction. In spite of his love for imperialism he did like India in his own way for he owed his popularity to it.

The generation that lived during the Raj is fading out, along with faithful cooks, barbers, dhobis, bearers and khansamas. But the bitter-sweet memory of those times refuses to fade away thanks to Raj fiction and the aura it imparts to the land where the tulsi grows.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 5:51:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/tulsi-tales/article29500712.ece

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