“For those who’ve never slept under the stars on a balmy summer night — like we did in our Nana-Nani’s (maternal grandpa and grandma) country house in Punjab, India — “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is just a nursery rhyme. I feel sad for those who haven’t had this experience,” said my brother reminiscing about his childhood. Even at 38, his childhood memories are crystal clear.
“For me, it was pure magic. A mere thought of it fills me with an indescribable pleasure and serenity,” I said, suddenly longing for my Nani’s house. My brother and I equally cherish the recollections of our summer holidays spent there during our childhood.
“You can well imagine what that house means to me. My entire childhood and youth was spent there, with the abundance of love from my parents and siblings,” added my Mum, teary-eyed.
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This is almost always the case when I visit my Mum and brother in India. We relive our memories in the late-night conversations, torn between the desire to continue the chit-chat and to fall into a sound sleep which seems so much more probable in each other’s company. I enjoy this little ritual of ours even though it often ends in, at times, happy or sad tears.
As we all pause and try to sleep, my thoughts drift to the address: Giani Dhian Singh, VPO (Village and Post Office) Khambra, District Jalandhar, Punjab. My father, an Indian Air Force official, used to send a telegram to my Nana (grandfather) informing him of the day of our arrival during the summer vacations. We enjoyed our vacations tremendously and were love-spoilt from all quarters. Our loving father would often drop us off and pick us up at the scheduled times but never stayed more than a night. I feel, he could never overcome his awkwardness with his gracious in-laws. His absence, however, meant we could have our way without any hindrance.
“My brother and I thought of this house as the grandest house in the entire country.”
As children, my brother and I thought of this house as the grandest house in the entire country. Those were the non-TV/non-internet, socially engaging times where relationships mattered. After a three-day long train journey from one end of India to another (as my father was posted at different places), we often took an auto-rickshaw from the Jalandhar Station, to be dropped off at the village entrance gate and continued our final leg of the journey on the dusty paths of Khambra village to our Nani’s house on a manual rickshaw.
On the way we loved to spot our Mum’s primary school, the huge banyan tree, underneath which she had often played dolls with her friends, the houses of her childhood friends and getting excited as if they all belonged to us. In a day or two, the entire village would come to know that we were on our annual visit.
Summer days were long, and were often spent playing indoors. It was the sunset we all longed for. Sweltering heat eased as the sky turned crimson, followed by a reddish-grey and finally black. We ran to meet the cows tied at the end of the house under the trees. We enjoyed feeding them and fetching them buckets full of water from the hand-pump. When the male members of the family returned from work, they took us to the fields were we each took a dip in gushing cold water from the tube-wells. Upon our return, the women-folk of the house would set up a large dari in the courtyard, where we all joined in for a small evening prayer before being fed with delicious aromatic fresh vegetable stews and curries that had simmered on the clay oven for most of the day in an eclectic mix of earthen and metal pots.
“Mum, are you asleep?” I ask, adding “Do you remember the sleeping arrangements at night?” before she can confirm if she is still awake.
“I do,” says my brother stifling a giggle.
Normally after dinner, the entire family of about 15-20 members (depending on who was visiting whom) strolled through the country lanes, talking about their day, often at a different pace where multiple groups and conversations were formed. This arrangement either remained same or new groups were formed after the T-junction was reached, leading to the next village. Meanwhile, all the children, cousins and friends, darted between one group and another, using the in-between space for playing tag or hide-and-seek, making the most of the unlit streets.
After this night walk, the entire house went into a kind of flurry when it was time to make beds. Huge wooden divans (extra-large single-beds) were brought out from the storage and folding beds were added where needed. It was an unforgettable sight. Each bed was lined up one after the other, from one end of the court-yard to another, often reaching close to the main metal entrance gate. After that, the assortment of bed-covers and sheets were brought out by each family as per their preferences and the army of relatives settled in their allocated space without any quibble. I wonder how the four of us in London don’t seem to agree on silliest of things.
At the beginning of this mechanically-precise arrangement, stood a massive iron pedestal fan, which worked very fast and made a queer ‘tck-tck’ sound after every eight rotations. This furratta, as such fans are popularly called, turned the still night air into a cool breeze.
My brother and I were usually flanked by our Nani on the left and Mum on the right. We pestered Nani to show us the Pole Star each night among the millions of starts that twinkled in the night. She would then narrate folk tales, tales of magical warriors and Sikh Gurus in her delightfully soothing voice. At times, I and my brother, started our own imaginative stories about stars. When our Mum wasn’t having her heart-to-heart with Nani, she would help us make new discoveries in the night sky. These cherished, enchanting nights continued throughout our visit.
“Who said I was asleep,” says my Mum, mumbling in her sleep, before letting out a tiny snore as a smile curves her lips.
My brother and I giggle, before each laying on our backs and turning to the ceiling which, in Mum’s house, is decorated as a night sky and the stars kind of glow in the dark. The AC has cooled the room enough. Nothing compares to those magical nights at our Nani’s house.
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