*******A picnic at Kregnaino********
When I was in school, picnics were a part of routine activity. I am not sure if the present-day children know the meaning of this word, but to us, it used to bring an immense thrill. It was customary for the school administrations to take the children to picnics at least once a year.
Come summer Shimla is full of tourists. The newly married couples start coming early on because they need more warmth and quiet to share, which Indian households are bereft of. I am talking of the warmth and not the heat and I pledge not to deviate from my focus during this story. With the onset of summer, besides these love birds also come the ‘love birds’ the tiny insects who are always seen making love even when flying, joined back to back, a position that can possibly be seen on Khajurao carvings but is impossible to achieve, was impossible to achieve until Yoga became an international sport or passion or fashion. You see, I can fit every word that has come to my mind like dovetailing that I am speaking about, but because I pledged not to deviate from my focus, let me take myself seriously for once.
The story that I am going to narrate to you is of the summer of 1964 or 1965. I was in 7th or 8th standard. When the Class In-charge told us that we will be going for a picnic on the coming Saturday, a loud cheer ran through the class. It was difficult for us to sit, till the school broke for the day. On other days, our walk back home was often punctuated with diversions, expeditions which resulted in delays in reaching home, but today, I was and perhaps all my other class fellows were in a hurry to get back home.
“Mummy, ham Shanivar ko picnic par ja rahe hain”, I said, throwing my bag away.” “Achha”, she said and continued with her chores. “Where are they taking you to this time?”, she asked after a pause. “Kregnano”, I said, and that how we thought that picnic spot near Mashobra was known as and spoken as. I only learned recently, that the place was named after an Italian town.
“Craignano- a picnic spot that was a villa of Chevalier Federico Peliti, an Italian photographer in India from the times of Queen Victoria, who named it in honor of his native town Carignano near Turin in Italy..” Source:- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashobra.
I don’t think she had ever been there. I have some pictures of her with her sister and our father at Tata Pani, which from the date written on those by our father, I understand was somewhere soon after her marriage in 1948.
I just checked on Google that the distance from Kaithu to Craignano is 14 Kms. So, it was going to be a long walk and an uphill task literally, because Kaithu is deep in the valley and Craignano is high on the hill. It lay farther beyond than where I had ventured all by myself until then. I was a big boy, I thought I was, but my mother didn’t share my exuberance. She was not thin and tiny to fit into the definition of being a petite woman but she was small-statured and delicate, diffident and she was a worrier. A mother hen, but she was helpless. She had to allow her son enough rope to develop the necessary confidence and skills he needed to become a successful man.
I gave her the list of items I wanted to take to the picnic in the bag that she was preparing for me. I need a stove, a double Roti ( Bread), Besan, Ghee..Pyaj ( Onions). My list was long as we ( the group of close friends) had decided to try our hands-on preparing Bread Pakoras and I had bragged that I knew how to make them. Mom seemed to be relenting while going over the list with me over and over again because I was being effectively persuasive by cunningly employing my copious tears to melt her soft heart and it was yielding like the glaciers to global warming. Every time she went through the list, she would halt at the first item “Stove.” The heat was necessary for giving shape to our plans but the instrument of heat that I was demanding would make her go cold.
She knew that making Bread Pakoras wasn’t a child’s play and she didn’t want her child to experiment to know it, but her child was adamant. Finally, she said ‘Hey Ram’ in her typical style of leaving things to God and said, Khyal Rakhin…( Take care). Perhaps, this was addressed to the Ram she believed in. I was happy that she had allowed me to take the stove along with me. It was a “Prabhat Stove”. That was the only type of stove that was available in the industrially undeveloped nation that India was in 1960s. I wiped my tears and put my arms around her neck and clung to her for a while. She released herself of the tangle and went into the kitchen.
The next day in the morning, when I got ready, I found she had packed the things I wanted. And yes, there was the stove, filled with kerosene and there was a matchbox and a pin that was used to clear the nozzle of the stove, also neatly packed. I saw that she had packed for me two Pranthas rolled over the cooked vegetables like she would give them to me in my lunch box every day. She insisted that I must take that with me because she doubted if could give shape to my dreams of making Bread Pakoras and she couldn’t bear the thought of her son remaining hungry all day. She had also packed some Savory Snacks, we call Namkeen. There was fruit and some sandwiches too, but I protested that it will be too heavy for me to carry all those things. I said, “When we were going to do the cooking where was the need of taking along all these things?”, but she insisted and put a condition on me that, I must take them or else, she won’t allow me to take the stove. I blew hot and cold and reluctantly, after some protestations, I agreed. I was already getting late. It was well past nine o’clock and I had a long way to go.
Since we were in higher class now, we were allowed to go separately, but in groups. It was far better than being herded in queues like we were taken on outings when we were in junior classes. The journey was long and the roads, lonely. The group of us Kaithu boys decided to take the Cart Road which now is called the Circular Road. From Loretto Convent which we used to call Tara Hall, we could walk all the way to Mashobra. I have written about my adventures on this road in my other posts. This was not our preferred road of choice on other days, because this was lonely and scary. Unlike these days, hardly any vehicles plied on this road then, because very few people had personal conveyances. I do not remember much about my travel on this lonely deserted road that day.
We didn’t waste much time on our way, chasing butterflies and wasps, because we were filled with excitement for the things we had planned for the day. It was bright and sunny, but there was a slight chill in the air. Big clouds were floating in the sky and a cool breeze was blowing.
None of us had ever been to Craignano before. After reaching there we found that it was just a patch of flat land on top of a hill. We got busy, playing, because for us in those days, a small stretch of flat land was more than what we could wish for. We took out assortments of cooked and uncooked food items and laid them on wet grassy ground and started with our preparations. We could not make the dough of the right consistency and decided to make Pakoras without the bread. But for doing anything, lighting the stove was necessary. Prabhat Stove worked on the principle of a pressurized chamber forcing hot hydrocarbons from a nozzle for full combustion. This little technical jargon is enough to describe its functioning but people with non-engineering backgrounds can skip it. The pressure was developed in the sealed tank by a pump mounted on its body. Each time we tried to light the fire, the breeze blew off the match stick. We gave up when we ran out of the match sticks in the matchbox. The lunch boxes that our wise mothers had given to us took care of our hunger.
Soon the clouds gathered in the sky and it began to rain. There was practically nowhere to take shelter.
The tall (Cheed) deodar trees that didn’t allow the sunlight to reach the ground weren’t able to stop the rain from drenching us. The wind blew wildly and the branches swayed. A big cavity like a vertical cauldron had got formed because of mud and debris holding beneath the tree had given way. I ran and took shelter in that, holding on to the exposed roots of the tree, but I kept losing grip because I was now violently shivering. A man passing by took notice of my plight. He helped me come out of the slush and sheltering me in his profusely dripping umbrella, led me to a dilapidated hut, some fifty meters away.
It was a shop-cum house of a person who sold confectionary and other essentials for the locals to make his living. It had a centrally placed Chullah for making tea for the customers.
Today, the shop was filled cheek by jowl with the children and local peasantry, some wet and some drenched. Wet logs smoking copiously, that were unable to give even a promise of warmth, were struggling to burn. I was pushed in through the crowd because I needed immediate warmth or whatever little of it was available to avoid hypothermic shock. My dripping sweater, shirt, and vest were removed, wrung, and spread on the flat plastered clay around the Chullah. I refused to remove my pants because I wasn’t wearing underwear. I was given a hot cup of tea that helped reduce my shivering.
The rain stopped after an hour of pounding and the clouds dispersed. A bright sun began to shine again as the people started leaving the shelter. Since it was already past 3 P.M. the boys started heading for home. I too started out with my friend Raj Kumar who lived in the police quarters in the Police Lines. After we crossed the Dhalli tunnel and came over towards Sanjauli side, a rapid sun shower which we used to call as Giddhad, Gidhhadi da vyah( Marriage of He and She Jackals) took us by a surprise.
A beautiful rainbow cut across the sky, but since the raindrops were big and chilly, we had to run for a shelter. There were huge concrete storm drain sections lying scattered about for some Municipal Drainage Project underway. We took shelter in one. The rain was still falling. We felt hungry. I hunted for something to eat in my bags and I was confident to find something. Rajkumar looked intently at me as I searched my bags as a simultaneous reaction to a thought of having and not having a mother ran through me like the lightning in the clouds gathered over the hills afar.
I had been to his home many times but I had not seen his mother and he never spoke of her. There were some filtered bit of stories that reached the ears of us young children and they weren’t pleasant.
And yes, there was a packet of Namkeen that had survived an unexpected deluge in Shimla and when I am posting this story on the platform I share with the people who have lived in Shimla, I know, they understand what I am talking about. It is the story of those days when there were no polythene bags to wrap the things. I don’t remember what my mother had used to beat, the possible assault of the worst that could spoil the snacks, should her child need to quell his hunger pangs, but dear friends, we are here today, because through those millions of years of evolution that mother earth has undergone, her daughter all along have known, how to save their children from perishing. If God had not put that instinct in the mothers, he created on this earth, we wouldn’t have been around to tell our stories.
I had not understood the importance of her insistence of carrying the stove in a separate bag. I do not dare to think that she had forgotten or overlooked but perhaps she had because she hadn’t told me that kerosene was poisonous. It had not occurred to her that such a mishap might occur and nor had she warned me against it, but I think she was aware of it or maybe she wasn’t. I do not know why the stove was in the same bag in which the leftover eatables were there in the bag I was searching for something to eat in the evening.
When I opened the packet to eat, a strong smell of Kerosene hit my nostrils. I told Rajkumar about it but I thought it was there because it happened to be in the same bag in which the stove was. It didn’t occur to me that some kerosene might have leaked out of the stove and seeped into the packet. I wasn’t even aware of the consequences of having Namkeen laced with kerosene. Despite the overpowering smell of kerosene, I picked some with my fingers and gingerly put it in my mouth. Immediately my head started spinning and I passed out.
I saw a beautiful fairy flit about like a butterfly before descended on glistening grass velvety carpet that lay all about us. She gently lifted my head and put it in her lap. Encircling it with her slender arms, she bent down very slowly and brought her pouted, sensuous lips to my lips. Her bosom heaved like the ocean warming up to the approaching gale. Beating against me, it made me feel snug. Her kiss uplifted my spirit. Her diaphanous wings flapping gently fanned a low fragrant breeze, sinking me deeper into the stupor. I laid there for what seemed like an eternity when she whispered into my ear…stop weaving the stories now, if you plan to post it on a Public Platform and Wake Up.
A sudden violent vomit brought me back to my disoriented senses, I saw Raj Kumar was crying furiously. On seeing me wake up, he held my head in his arms and kissed me profusely. His tears wet my face. I had become unconscious because of having poisoned food but he had lost his senses out of shock. He didn’t know what to do. He was scared of leaving me to go out and seek help. There weren’t the kind of crowds that we get to see these days in Shimla. Nobody heard his cries except the God, he fervently prayed to.
He gave me water to drink and after a little while, I got up. The vomit had saved me from certain death. Slowly the fuzz in my head cleared and we made it home. After reaching home, I clung to the fairy, I could feel the warmth of and would not barter for all the riches of the world and I kissed her.