Pangs of Fatehpur
It was different when we were growing up
Ensconced in my tiny village near Mashobra in the Shimla hills, these days I feel like Raja Hari Singh Katoch of Kangra when he was besieged in the Kangra fort by Jahangir in 1620. Worse, actually, because the stalwart Raja had to put up with the inconvenience for only fourteen months, whereas I have had to endure it every year.
And it’s not the Mughal army I must contend with, but Delhi’s Khan Market and Lutyen’s gangs.
Come April and members of these gangs clamber, in the tens of thousands, up the mountain landscape to take over our markets, roads, forests and every bed in every homestead. Like locusts they devour everything, leaving in their wake only tons of plastic, bottles, empty packets of chips, cigarettes and condoms.
Like Jahangir they lay claim to our lawns, apple trees and parking. We huddle in our homes, waiting for the pestilence - tourists in modern parlance - to pass.
I have given the origins of this annual invasion a lot of thought, and have come to the conclusion that it occurs primarily because we no longer visit our grandparents, and prefer instead to go on vacation to the hills. The internet, competitive consumerism and the breakdown of familial relationships drive us constantly to seek ‘new experiences’ and new vistas. Even if it means being stuck for eight hours on the Rohtang pass, being ripped off by taxi drivers in Dharamshala or abused by Kufri’s pony wallahs.
It was different when we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. My grandfather, a patriarch no one messed with, stayed in a village in the Fatehpur district in UP called Husainganj (perhaps the good Yogi has by now changed its name). He had built himself a huge haveli there and inscribed one golden rule on its stones: all his children and seventeen grandkids had to visit him every summer: he even paid for the rail tickets.
So I never even saw a mountain (or desert, or sea) till I was 25. Every summer vacation Dad would pack the family into a second-class coach of the Kalka mail at Calcutta (or Hazaribagh or Asansol or wherever he happened to be posted at the time) for the 24-hour journey to Fatehpur: annual migrations I look back on with fond nostalgia, mixed with the regret that my own sons, being part of the KM gang, have never seen this facet of the Old India.
Train travel today is all about getting to the destination as quickly as possible, never about the pleasures of the journey itself. I recently travelled by Shatabdi to Kanpur and found that of the 62 passengers, 60 had buried their noses and persona into their smart phones.
The 61st was a seven-eight year old kid (who should have been smothered at birth) sliding the door open and shut, letting the flies in and the cold air out.
I was the 62nd, observing it all, and weeping like Alexander the Great for now, truly, I had seen everything.
For us the journey was itself a delight. There were no AC coaches or electric traction back then. We would stick our heads out of the open windows, breathing in the soot and smoke from the Bullet engines, jumping out at every station to buy comics from the AH Wheeler stalls (where have they all disappeared?), grabbing the local station food from the vendors: jhalmoori at Asansol, aloo tikkis at Dhanbad, samosas at Mughalsarai, puri-aloo at Benaras, the delicious pedas at Allahabad.
All extremely unhygienic, swarming with e-coli no doubt, but Michelin-star stuff that built up the immunity which in later years has enabled us to tackle the tasteless swill IRCTC serves on trains nowadays.
But the pièce de resistance for which we would all wait came at Fatehpur, at the opportune time for breakfast. Its generally deserted restaurant served the best buttered toast and omelette on the Grand Trunk line, on round tables covered with spotless linen and cutlery. (The only railway restaurant that comes even close to its ambience and service is the Barog station on the Kalka-Shimla line.)
We would leave the restaurant only when they had run out of eggs, for the next two weeks in Hussainganj were to be a vegetarian existence, without even onions and garlic.
There was just a dirt track between Fatehpur and Husainganj, a distance of about ten kilometres; no buses, only the occasional horse carriage on a sharing basis. But my grandfather had the biggest haveli in the village and there was no way his grand brats would travel in a tonga. For us he sent his personal bullock cart, drawn by two of his finest oxen, a magnificent, snow-white pair standing almost five feet high at the shoulders, bedecked with colourful ribbons and tinkling bells, their regal horns sheathed in copper.
The bullock cart itself was a caparisoned wonder, flaunting sun shades, carpeted with Mirzapuri rugs and stocked with sugarcane, peanuts and nimbu-pani. We flew down the dirt track like Ben Hur in the last lap of his famous race, giving the term cattle class an entirely new meaning. It set the tone for the next month, a controlled chaos of joint family living, over which my grandfather proudly presided: a patriarch who held his large family together with stern diktats, superb logistic skills and well placed inducements.
He is gone now, of course, and so is the world we grew up in: the haveli is in ruins, the bullock cart is now a symbol of penury not status, the omelette a leathery strip served with sarkari reluctance, the station food vendors replaced by a catering franchisee hawking packaged rubbish… Most trains do not even stop at Fatehpur.
Why should they? Nobody goes there any more, for everyone is now headed to the mountains, the seaside resorts, or the casinos of Goa. In this world of OYO rooms, MakeMyTrip.com, Airbnb and cashbacks, visiting grandfathers is such a waste of time.
But I do wish the millennial generation would start visiting the old critters again: it would make them happy, it would lift my siege and might even save the mountains from further depredation.
I speak, of course, as a grandfather in waiting.