Sunday, May 06, 2018

Gahara Peechha

"Every city in the world has a village in its heart.  You will never understand the city, unless you first understand the village.  Go there.  When you return, I will see what India has made of you.  Bonne chance!"    


After three years, I went back to India - Sushil's and my first visit back to India together - for the wedding of Sushi's best friend, Rajat.  As the wedding was taking place (relatively) close to Sushil's home, we took the occasion for Sushil to show me where he's from.

Sushil's village is quite remote, so to reach it you need to take a 5+ hour bus ride from one of the nearish airports.  Fortunately, one of those airports is in Chandigarh, a city I've been quite keen to visit.  Akin to Brasília and Canberra, Chandigarh was built in the 20th century as a capital city.  Straddling the border of the states of Punjab and Haryana, it is capital to both, and was designed by Le Corbusier, often considered giving birth to the modern brutalist architectural movement with his Unité d'Habitation.  The city has a special significance in India as it was built after the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, and the states it would govern became home for a large part of the millions of people who fled or were forced out of Pakistan.    

Being a planned city with street grids, sectors and roundabouts, Chandigarh is a surprisingly calm, clean and sprawling city for India.  It's also relatively rich (or perhaps, just more firmly segregated, like Brasília), with no slums or street families.  The city has its fair share of under-maintained, crumbling buildings, but it also has broad avenues connecting parks, lakes and other leisure spaces.  It almost doesn't feel like India at all.

Map of Chandigarh showing its master plan.

The Gandhi building at the university.

A mini Eiffel Tower in a park, in honour of Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier sculpture park.

Architecture museum.

Solitary man sweeping the large plaza in the arts compound, with the modern art museum behind.

Performance hall.

The Rock Garden of Chandigarh was constructed by Nek Chand, who had fled from Pakistan at partition.  "In his spare time, Nek Chand started collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The gorge had been designated as a land conservancy, a forest buffer established in 1902 that nothing could be built on. Chand’s work was illegal, but he was able to hide it for 18 years before it was discovered by the authorities in 1975. By this time, it had grown into a 12-acre (49,000 m2) complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals."

High Court of Punjab and Haryana, in the Capitol Complex, the brutalist heart of Le Corbusier's city.

The Open Hand Monument, "the emblem...of Chandigarh and symbolizes 'the hand to give and the hand to take; peace and prosperity, and the unity of mankind'".

Palace of Assembly.  The assembly of Punjab meets under the round tower, and Haryana's under the triangular one.  The structure on the left is the Tower of Shadows, a monument built to showcase the architectural devices used in the capitol complex to guard against the city's aggressive Summers.  As soon as you walk inside, you feel the air temperature drop.

Secretariat Building, where Chandigarh's mandarins toil.

On the rim of Sukhna Lake, manmade for the enjoyment of the capital's denizens, complete with boat rentals and a lakeside country club for the elite.

Sushil and his brother, Panku.  Sushil's brother lives and works in Chandigarh, so we met up with him there before heading off to the village.  He was the first of the Thakur clan that I was to meet in the coming days.

From Chandigarh, we took a winding, weaving bus ride (sick bags were passed out and audibly used en route) to Sunder Nagar, Sushil's regional town.  After loading up on beer, bottled water and toilet paper, it was a 20-minute taxi ride along a narrow, precipitous, single-lane road to Sushil's village, Bhanglehra.  On one of my trips to India, before we were married, Sushil casually mentioned to me about "when they built the road to his town, about 10 years ago".  Learning that the village didn't even have a road until into the 21st century really made me realise how remote Sushil's village was, so riding along this rural lifeline was quite poignant and surreal.     

As it turns out, the road doesn't actually go to the village, but next to it, on the top of an overlooking ridge.  The only way to navigate the village is via dirt footpaths down the hill from the road, winding amongst the houses, fields, stream and various farm animals of Bhanglehra.  From what I could tell, other than a couple lower-caste homes on the outskirts, the village was made up entirely of Sushil's relatives.  His grandparents live directly behind his family home, and his aunts, uncles, cousins and their children lived in the rest.  As children marry and families grow, most people don't move, but instead build a house next door, or, like Sushil's parents, add another level to the exhisting house.  The result is a collection of colourful, spacious houses that most Londoners can only dream of, but conspicuously short of possessions, as the region's legal minimum wage of ~£2 ($3) per day might imply.    

As the villagers (ie, family) go about their days, they walk amongst the houses and shout out to see if anyone's home, or ask a question.  Several of his cousins, and soon his brother, have settled into their arranged marriages, built homes next to their parents, and made a life for themselves with blue collar jobs in Sunder Nagar, supplemented with some crops and dairy from the fields and animals they tend.  There's an overwhelming sense of insularity and acquiescence in the village, like leaves floating down a stream; they've been set on a life path, centred around marriage, and peacefully and unquestioningly follow it.  On the last night in the village, Sushil’s father was, not for the first time, telling me in basic English that Sushil needs to be married within six months (sometimes it was four).  I asked if it wasn’t important for each person to also be happy in life, and he looked at me a bit uncomfortably answered “No.  No.”, and then told me his society expected it of him.      

It must be terribly hard for him, but I can say I am so proud of, and amazed by, Sushil.  Seeing the village, and meeting its people and their tiny, tiny world, it truly is amazing that Sushil has done what he has, moved away to Mumbai and now London, and has the mindset he has.  He’s truly exceptional.   And also very lucky that his parents elected to send him to the English language school rather than the Hindi.  His world of opportunities is so much larger than his Hindi-speaking cousins left in the village.  Everyone's life is a roll of the dice to some extent, but Sushil took that lucky roll and worked hard to turn it into a life for himself that he loves, in which he's comfortable and honest, and which would be unfathomable in the village.

The hills of Sushil's home state, Himachal Pradesh.

Sushil's father outside their house.

Sushil looking out at their fields.

Sushil's mom in her kitchen.

The grandparents' house, and Sushil's grandfather on the terrace.  His back is permanently bent at that angle, he can't get any more erect.  Life was very hard in India two generations ago.

My favourite bit of the house was this portal between the dining room and the kitchen where the men could request things from the kitchen.  Here Sushil is exchanging our dirty dishes for a bottle of beer.

There is no hot water in the house, so to bathe you first heat up a bucket of water with an immersion heater, and then wash yourself using a pitcher to scoop water from the bucket.

The road, heading out from the village towards Sunder Nagar.

Sunder Nagar

Sunder Nagar only has two big roads, the state highway and this shopping street, which feels like so much of urban India.

One of Sushil's cousins drove us around the area one day and we stopped to have some drinks at a restaurant with a terrace.  When I saw this guy there, I was shocked to see another tourist, as I hadn't since Chandigarh.  But turns out he's wasn't a tourist - he was our waiter and was as Indian as Sushil, right down to speaking the local language.

View from the terrace.

Sushil enjoying a local treat.

Me with the "suburbs" of Sunder Nagar behind.

On my last night, we got the whole clan into the dining room for dinner.        

Last, but not least, before going home, was Rajat's wedding, a full-on, multi-day affair.  Unfortunately, due to our work restraints and the timing required by the bride's and groom's stars, we were only able to attend the first (but most important) ceremonies.  The wedding was very much what you expect of an Indian wedding: huge, boisterous, colourful and accompanied by a neverending supply of food (and total dearth of alcohol).  It was great to see Sushil relax a bit away from the family, and to laugh and banter with his university friends.  One had decent English, so I was even able to give Sushil a bit of a break from summarising lengthy conversations into a sentence or two.    

By the end of the week, we were both ready to get back to London - out of the heat, back to our life together, and to take a break from curry.  The wedding also being in rural Himachal Pradesh, this of course meant a two-hour taxi ride to Shimla, then a flight to Delhi, connecting flight onward to Mumbai, where we stayed overnight before flying back to London.  Accessible, it ain't.  But worth every effort.

Traditionally, the groom would arrive at the bride's home on a white horse.  In modern India, a white sedan is the norm.

In our full wedding finest!

I loves me an Indian buffet!

The bride and groom, suitably understated.


Natasha Watkinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natasha Watkinson said...

“There's an overwhelming sense of insularity and acquiescence in the village, like leaves floating down a stream; they've been set on a life path, centred around marriage, and peacefully and unquestioningly follow it.” Beautifully worded, loved this x

Tracy Small said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this! Thanks for sharing your trip!