Chhara History Lessons and Tea Among Graves with M.F. Hussain
Sing and sup among the dead in Ahmedabad
What is your notion of places where the dead lie? Most would say such places are full of pain, gloomy and even spooky. But this isn’t always the case. You might think differently if you happen to visit a couple of places in Gujarat’s biggest and most bustling city of Ahmedabad.
How about a steaming cup of tea or coffee and some out-of-the-world maska bun (a butter bun with the option of jam) that we would have sitting amidst graves? You might want to follow it up with some sumptuous south Indian cuisine, or maybe some ice cream, shakes or plain fruit juice.
The famous Lucky Tea Stall near Lal Darwaza is just the place, offering an ambience of graves to go along with some mouthwatering food. The place located in the Mirzapur area on the banks of the Sabarmati river is a must visit.
One has to be lucky to find an empty table at this restaurant as it’s always teeming with people from all walks of life. Lucky Tea Stall stands on an old graveyard where the graves were never dismantled. The place is covered and the tables are spread amidst the graves.
The establishment has installed low railings around the graves so no one ever steps on them even by accident. One of the most prestigious customers at the place happened to be the legendary painter Maqbool Fida Hussain. A work he gifted adorns a wall of the restaurant. Iconic human rights lawyer Girish Patel was another regular customersince the days he taught at a law college nearby.
Very few people know how Lucky Tea Stall came into being. More than a decade back when I was posted in Ahmedabad on a reporting assignment, one of the seniormost functionaries on the managerial staff related that the place developed from a small paan kiosk which also sold tea and stood at the spot several decades ago. He said the venture was started by one K.Mohammed from Calicut in Kerala, who later entered into a deal with a Bombay based party.
While the graves remain untouched and immaculate, a tree trunk growing through the roof adds another aesthetic dimension to the place. The employees here vouch that whosoever comes to the restaurant once becomes a regular customer for life. They may be right, for I have come across many people who have been frequenting this place right from their school or college days.
One also comes across many first timers showing a slight reluctance to sit among the graves and savour a beverage or snack. But once that reluctance is overcome, the visit becomes one to remember.
Another interesting place of the dead to visit is the cremation grounds of the Chhara community. The Chharas are a ‘denotified tribe’ involved, like several other DNTs across the country, in a struggle for social and economic equality.
If one happens to visit their cremation grounds near Chharanagar, one comes across memorials that make for interesting reading. There are memorials with sentimental lyrics of Bollywood songs on them. Smaller memorials display the educational qualifications of those who passed away.
One of the lyrics is from the famous Rajesh Khanna starrer ‘Safar’ of the seventies that goes, ‘Rote rote zamaane mein aaye magar, hanste hanste zamaane se jaayenge hum’ (I/we came into the world crying but will depart in laughter).
Add to this the ritual of placing those articles on the memorials or adjacent to them which were once the favourite of the departed soul. So, one can come across bundles of bidi, packets of cigarettes, confectionery and baked goods, and even walking sticks and clothing apparel.
According to filmmaker and cultural activist from the community Dakxin Chhara, “In our community we believe that although a family member has died and been cremated, he or she remains in close vicinity. We do not believe in concepts like heaven or hell. We simply believe that the energy remains somewhat near.”
He further explained that given the traumatised past of the community, which was declared a notified tribe under British rule and only had that tag removed after independence, it is a matter of great pride for family members if any of their elders were able to attain higher education.
Interestingly, over the last couple of decades Chharas have produced a very large number of lawyers, as their need was felt in the face of a large number of community members being targeted by law enforcement agencies on charges of petty crime.
Hence it is not surprising to see the BA, LLB qualification tag on some of the memorials.
“I myself got a stone place erected at the memorial of my father with the tag line ‘Muqaddar ka Sikandar’ (Lord of Luck) for he was fond of gambling and always believed he would strike it big someday.
“We refer to him as ‘Dagad Dev’ as he was very precise and never missed his mark when he threw a stone at something. Hailing from Nandurbar on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border he could climb and descend the Pavagadh hill near Vadodara at amazing speed. This is the lore of our family and we are all very proud of it,” Chhara disclosed.
He added, “Whenever there is a death and we go there for the cremation, we tend to take the favourite articles of those who have passed away in our own families and keep them on their memorial. It is an act of reverence towards the departed soul, and a way to convey that the deceased has not been forgotten. It’s immaterial who consumes or utilises these articles in the end.”
Photographs: Mayurika Maya