Between the haves and the have-nots

Having lived in the plains of North India all my life, I do have a deep connection with the hills. My parents belonged to Almora, a mountainous district. I call myself a non-resident Kumaoni, unable to visit my native place regularly. In these days of luxuries becoming necessities, air-conditioners and heaters have perhaps made this seasonal migration redundant. Travelling is on a new high; all the year round, not restricted to inclement weather.

In the past, most of my relatives would head for the UK. No, not the United Kingdom but Uttarakhand, where like migratory birds they would fly to find relief from the scorching heat. My relatives would visit us in the severe winter months, unable to survive the cold back home.

While growing up in almost threadbare, spartan surroundings, my elder brothers and sisters started getting conscious about the lack of comforts within our household, especially when we fraternised with cousins who were better off and more accustomed to a sumptuous life, living in a state of great comfort and elegance. This inferiority complex led to awkward situations, especially when the haves visited the have-nots in winter, when residential schools would be closed for vacation.

My cousins were being educated in exclusive public schools (the hill district of Nainital is known for many schools established by the British) while we lived in the dim outskirts of their world; studying in local schools, struggling to converse in English. It was difficult to sustain a long conversation, so we often ended up mixing it with a smattering of Hindi.

Sartorial elegance was another point of difference. Their stylish clothes from reputed tailors were so much different from our home-stitched clothes. We were asked by our parents not only to absorb their elegant manners, their chaste and impeccable British accent, their flowery speech and their habit of reading ornate leather bound books and also newspapers in English.

My father did not have the means to splurge on material things but he always spent much of what he earned for us on comics. We were lucky to have a cupboard full of Mandrake the Magician, Phantom, Little Lotta, Dot, Hot Stuff, Dagwood, Blondie, and Casper, the Friendly Ghost, not to mention loads and loads of Archie comics. Comics bonded us, in a way. My cousins envied us for our sizeable collection. Their schools had always encouraged them to focus on the classics and cultivate highfalutin’ reading habits, incomprehensible to us. So, while they were reading Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, we, the plebeians, were chuckling over Sad Sack and Beetle Bailey.

The other major leveller in relationship between the privileged and the humble was the bicycle. Bike-riding was unknown to most cousins of my age. When they came down to the plains, they would shakily learn to pedal and balance the bicycle; a skill they had not experienced in the serpentine, undulating hillscape.

The grown-ups, without any such emotions, would catch up on gossip, basking in the sun with endless cups of tea, snacks of potato fritters and fresh peas, cooked tender in clarified butter, with a tempering of cumin seeds, garnished with finely chopped coriander leaves and a tangy squeeze of lemon. My mother would be busy in the kitchen, with her ears listening to the grown-ups’ conversation, eyes on the household help and a third eye on what was transpiring among us children.

We overcame all the class differences and scored over our affluent cousins. They felt we were leading awesome lives, not having a gruelling schedule to follow in school or at home, eating with their hands and not using cumbersome cutlery all the time. They loved the wholesome breakfast of puri-bhaji , which was so normal for us, instead of chota haziri of porridge, toast and boiled egg, that too in an egg cup.

We could not comprehend half of their lifestyle they told us about, but what we understood was that sometimes too much comfort, too much of discipline, was not an advantage, and that lack of control in life was not bad but full of grace and miracles.