I have been rather blessed with the fact that a very large part of my professional career was spent in areas away from big population centers. I thoroughly enjoyed these tenures as they totally resonated with my love for a simple, rustic and ‘close to nature’ way of life. My family and friends considered this an anomaly, often advising me and offering options - even projecting their wisdom to the days, when I would leave work and put my feet up. Their suggestions were gratefully set aside, since each one of them gravitated around big cities. In their attempt to guide me back on the right track, they failed to comprehend that to me, life in big cities was monotonous and dull. The concrete jungle could not offer adventures and experiences of living close to nature, indulging in my passion for trekking, breathing clean air and eating produce that I could certify as one hundred percent organic and fresh. And so it was that on retirement more than two decades ago, I found myself in the midst of everything that I loved doing.
When I look back in time, I am gratified by the fact that my lifestyle brought me into contact with uniquely interesting characters, events that ranged for the normal to the paranormal and situations that later became the stories that I recount in my weekly pieces.
Village life in the Subcontinent was simple and extremely hospitable. Although times have changed, but one can still discover the old traditional village center of gravity in some remote hamlet, tucked in an out of the way spot, somewhere in a corner far from the network of asphalt ribbons that crisscross the land. This almost extinct rural focal point was the village ‘tandoor’ – a place where one could pour out woes to willing ears, obtain counselling and get the latest news (read gossip).
The ‘tandoor’ was an institution more gender liberal than common belief since many of these earthen bread making ovens were run by women. They did not only provide piping hot ‘rotis’, but curry too - without detriment to the fact that one could derive equal satisfaction by just eating the deliciously crispy ‘roti’. One such spot was in a hideaway village on the outskirts of Shuja Abad, midway between Multan and Bahawalpur.
Mai Heeri was a lean and wiry female with a face covered by tough leathery skin – a probable result of the hot climate, aggravated by heat from the ‘tandoor’. She wore a loose ‘shalwar kameez’ and had a bandana like piece of cloth covering her head. It was difficult to determine her real age, the only clue to which, was the fact that an army of grandchildren frequented her work premises. Her ‘number of years’ however appeared irrelevant, when one heard her stentorian voice raised in banter with the village folk, who brought their dough to her spot. She was quick on the temper and when that happened all hell broke loose upon the poor wretch, who had instigated the outburst.
I usually sat on a bedstead under the rickety straw roofed structure covering her establishment, watching people of both genders sidle up to her for advice, which to their consternation was given with voice loud enough for everyone to hear. The interesting thing was that in spite of this lack of privacy, they still returned to her. I often wondered in retrospect that while Mai Heeri may have helped in saving many marriages, she may have also set in motion some breakups too. Nonetheless she reminded me of a book I read somewhere in the 1950s titled ‘Advice Limited’. Sometimes her wisdom was dispensed gratis to individuals, she took a liking to. I was fortunately one of the lucky ones, since out of sheer fascination, I used to drive the short distance from my camp to eat her delicious one item menu, consisting of ‘daal’ and ‘roti’.
Then some years later, I returned to the area and made haste to Mai Heeri’s ‘tandoor’, only to find her gone and the place demolished. Enquiries revealed that she had passed away after contracting ‘meeadi bukhar’ (a rural name for typhoid) and that her son had demolished the landmark that signified a cultural heritage. I turned around heading for town to find a restaurant and looking back in the rear view mirror, almost crashed the vehicle, as I thought I saw the nebulous figure of an old woman with a bandana around her wizened head, standing where her ‘tandoor’ used to be.
The writer is a historian.