W

hen I started writing my Sunday piece more than a decade ago, I named the thread ‘Lahore – The Golden Years’. As time went by and my storehouse of tales from the city of my birth began to dwindle, I decided to expand the scope of my writing under the umbrella ‘Lahore and Beyond’. Much of what I wrote came from personal experiences, but there were occasions, when at the right point in time, I met somebody who recharged my memory, helping me to recall new episodes and just keep going. I have recently met such an individual and am grateful that he extended a hand of friendship and spared time in spite of his heavy commitments. In him I discovered a soul that hungered for books and reading and who could sit across from me to pass on some of his knowledge to someone as starved as I was.

I have met many unique individuals during my ‘rural’ ramblings. My career actually abetted my footloose nature, taking me to places few get to see. My travels exposed me to a variety of emotions – fear, sorrow, happiness, respect and not the least, awe. Baba Fateh Khan (not his real name for reasons known best to his descendants) came up on my radar, as my meagre belongings, consisting of a bedroll (known in the old days as the ‘bisterbund’) and a worn out brown leather attaché case were being offloaded from what could be called a ‘tonga’. I had been forced to take this mode of transportation from the small railway station to the dak bungalow, since a mix up by the person handling my itinerary had directed my designated vehicle to another station twenty miles down the line.

What I beheld approaching me, was a man with a leathery wrinkled face adorned by a patchy white beard, attired in a white cotton kurta and dhoti topped by a ‘pugree’ of the same neutral color. His posture and gait belying his age, the ‘Baba’ confidently walked up to me, his desi foot wear raising small puffs of dust and extended his right forearm with a loud ‘Assalam O Alaikum’. I grasped the outstretched hand rather uncertainly and felt the coarse skin and the uncanny strength of the grip. This then was the beginning of a long friendship that bridged time and age – a friendship that pulled me with an unseen force on many more trips to the century old canal rest house and the company of ‘Chacha Fateh Khan’, for soon after our first meeting, I began addressing him as such.

‘Chacha’ never visited me empty handed and in doing so introduced me to culinary pleasures I had hitherto missed. On one of my visits, the rest house caretaker gave me a message to the effect that on this day, I should have a light breakfast without tea. I was also told that the message had been delivered by ‘Chacha Fateh Khan’s’ grandson, very early in the morning. Somewhere around midday, I saw a rickety horse drawn contraption resembling a ‘rehra’ enter the drive. From it, alighted my friend accompanied by two young men, who were introduced as his grandchildren. A terracotta cooking pot covered with a lid of the same material was then unloaded along with a fully stacked ‘chungair’ shrouded in a printed cloth. Then there appeared three terracotta bowls, one of which was covered with muslin and a large earthen ‘chaati’ that appeared rather heavy. Everything accounted for, the two young men were ordered to go home and return after three hours.

When I called the resident cook cum caretaker for plates, cutlery and glasses, he was promptly told to make himself scarce. What followed then was a feast, the taste of which lingers in my mouth even as I sit writing this piece. From the cooking pot there emerged a wooden spoon which was used to ladle steaming dollops of ‘saag’ on ‘jwar’ rotis. I was told that the ‘saag’ was a mixture of ‘sarson’ mixed with two varieties of wild greens that grew randomly in the fields. The muslin covered bowl produced snow white homemade butter, which was generously added to the ‘serving’ and then came the show stopper – salted ‘lassi’ from the ‘chaati’.

I have no idea how much of the menu was ingested by me that day. My taste buds said more, while my head and a bloated belly said enough. At the end of the meal, ‘Chacha’ Fateh delved into his pockets and produced a small bottle containing some dark colored grains. He unscrewed the top and asked to take a fair sized ‘phakki’ from the bottle. I did so tentatively, at which he laughed saying that ‘sahib log’ were ignorant of the many bounties that village life had to offer. Within minutes of taking my ‘herbal dose’, I had a series of uncontrollable burps at the end of which I felt as if I was ready for another meal. I still have that bottle stashed somewhere in the mayhem that is my study, but its contents are no more. The insignificant looking glass container is nonetheless a reminder of how little we city dwellers know of the wonders of rural living and the happiness that comes with it.

 

The writer is a historian.