Saturday, August 21, 2010

How My Grandfather Became Mayor The First Time

There was no electricity in the village back then. It was a big house, the biggest house of its kind in the village.

My great-grandfather had not been a landlord, he had been a self made man who had started from scratch and had gone on to end up with more land than anyone else in the village. There's a difference. When it was time to build this house, he had organized trips to the thick forests tens of miles to the north. A whole bunch of men would "drive" bullock carts to the forests, fell trees, and bring them back to the village. "Pillars" in the house were these thick tree trunks that you could barely get your hands around.

Five women lived in the house, my mother and my aunt, my two grandmothers, my great grandmother. There was this big courtyard, and there were rooms all around that courtyard. There was land to the three sides of the house to grow vegetables. There were fruit trees, guava, papaya, pomegranate, shareefa/sitafal/sugar apple. Legend had it there was even a coconut tree there once. But the women of the house would quarrel so much among themselves when there were coconuts to the tree - each wanted to send them to their own "nahira" (father's house) - that one day lightning struck and the tree was no more.

One grandmother was a widow. My grandfather's younger brother fell victim to an epidemic ("haija") that swept the country when he was very young. When my new bride mother had showed up and had me, the first child, she found herself amidst a cold war among the women of the house, and this grandmother stood by her, she would never tire of telling me. "I washed your dirty linen!" Apparently I was relieving myself in bed and I did not even remember. My mother had been from a richer family from across the border in India (same culture, same language, just a political border in between). One of her cousins was Education Minister of Bihar later in the 1990s when Laloo Yadav was Chief Minister of Bihar. Laloo Yadav more recently was Railway Minister for all of India.

The women of the family cooked the food. Usually my mother and aunt took turns. You can imagine, big pots of food. Sometimes there were misunderstandings around the schedule and the women would get into full blast shouting matches. They would cook a little something special for their own children. Sometimes that would also lead to misunderstandings.

If there was one thing we had plenty of, it was the food. The first to show up would be the men. My great grandfather, my grandfather. The kids would run around and the women would run after them trying to feed them. At night time it got trickier. I have many memories of having fallen asleep, my mother having picked me up, put me in her lap, and fed me with her own hand while I was still asleep. Multi-tasking, sleeping and eating at the same time.

Finally it was the turn of the servants and the workers on the farms. Untouchability was in vogue, perhaps still is. The servants were usually from Dalit families. The family ate in steel plates. They had aluminum plates. They would put their plate on the ground, and the women would serve the food from a safe distance.

After the sister after me was born, my father who had had a few years of education in the capital city decided he wanted to do the family planning thing. My great grandfather was offended.

"Don't I feed your children? Is that what you are telling me?" he demanded to know. And so my second sister, my brother, and my youngest sister Babita were born. Babita lives in Boston today.

So it was night time, early evening. It was time for dinner. The call had gone out to the big, brick house. There were two houses. There was this courtyard one, mud walls, thick tree pillars, baked tile roof. And there was this brick house across, on the same side of the street. The biggest feature of the brick house was this huge verandah that was open. Men of the village would lie down there for their afternoon siestas, and sleeps at night. There were so many men who never slept in their own homes. Then slept on this open verandah. During summer, they would also line up on the roof of the brick house. My grandfather had this one room on the first floor of that brick house. My grandmother slept in the mud house.

And there was another big house - as big as the courtyard house - just for the animals. The dude with more land than anyone else in the village had lots and lots of animals. These oxen ploughed the fields. How I knew my mother's side of the family was richer was because my maternal grandfather had even more oxen, way more. The animal house was this one big box. We kids only ventured into that house when the animals were not inside. Otherwise you never knew which animal might get into the mood and give you a swift kick, and then where were you?

So the call went out for dinner. My grandfather walked over down from his room of the brick house, across the yard, to our tubewell to wash his hands, get some fresh water for dinner. It was the only tubewell in the neighborhood, and every morning and evening there would be long lines of women. Every now and then someone would cut line, and shouting matches would ensue. The language would get graphic. I never heard such body part talk ever after.

Of course my grandfather did not have to stand in line.

He came to sit on the wooden plank on the floor. He was having dinner.

A little while later some men from the neighboring village barged in, lifted him up and carried him away. They did not even let him wash his hand. They did not tell him what was going on. He had no idea.

What had happened was a committee of men in the neighboring village had decided my grandfather was the most suitable to be the new mayor of the village. It was a unit of four villages. This was some time before they actually started having elections. And he won each time with huge margins until the political system in the country changed.

So they carried him away. When they carried him back, there were a whole bunch of garlands around his neck, there was colored powder all over his forehead. There was the village "band" playing their exotic instruments. Festivities began. For those special occasions they would take out the petromax lanterns. And they did.

And now you know how my grandfather became Mayor the first time. Over the years people started calling us the Gandhi family of our village. The Kennedys in America are not like the Gandhis in India. Does not even compare as to what the Gandhis are in India.

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