A 3800 years old history and no takers!

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

It’s been more than two years of my stay in Ludhiana and there is a certain route I traverse almost daily. Lined up on the kilometre-long stretch are beauty salons, department stores, a single-screen theatre, gurdwaras, a gym and various small eateries dishing out pizzas, ice creams and momos.

Recently, I chanced upon a newspaper story on the internet and discovered that a huge fenced ground at a turn on that route – that barely catches the attention and looks like a piece of commercial real-estate property waiting for construction – has underneath it the remnants of a civilisation that existed 3,800 years ago!

The story said that during excavations at Ludhiana’s Sunet village, carried out by the Punjab archaeology department in 1984, thousands of coins and seals from the times of ancient kings such as Hermaeus, Gondophernes, Chandragupta and Samudragupta were found. The land was subsequently declared protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, the instruction announced by a small rust-eaten board in a corner.

This was incredulous to me. I wondered how a site of such massive historical importance could lie in total disregard. No friend who accompanied me to that area for evening strolls had mentioned it. To my shock, it emerged that they had no clue and, in fact, didn’t show much interest either. Those few who did know had only a vague idea about the excavations and rubbished my curiosity with, “Yeah, there was some talk of rare coins back then”

In this city of flashy cars, deep pockets, colossal houses and a long roster of successful homegrown industries, history is neither preserved nor bothered about.

A woman showing her finds; the picture is taken from a newspaper

A woman showing her finds; the picture is taken from a newspaper

Curious to dig more, I met a family   with the help of a local resident   which has been inhabiting the area for more than 60 years. The eldest member, a smiling Sikh, though hard of hearing, chatted with me happily and offered me eye-popping glimpses into the land’s recent history. It was 1965 and the family began construction of a new pucca house in the area, moving from a rundown tenement nearby. As the masons dug the earth, the family discovered at a depth of 7 ft a pot (matka) buried underneath. As the digging continued, they found 11 similar pots hidden underneath in a row!

What did they do with the pots? “One or two were cracked, so we broke them down. The ones that were in good shape, we used them to store grains. But they burst. Until a year ago, I had one of those pots,” he said with childlike excitement. While I sat stunned, regretting it all, he saw my disappointment. “Nobody like you ever came to me asking anything about those things. My children and grandchildren never valued them and eventually I, too, began to think little of them.

Anyway, he showed me three coins he had saved over the years. Interestingly, people from faraway places in the country used to visit the village, asking residents about the rare coins and artefacts. The innocent villagers would barter the rare possessions for what they thought was a princely sum. There are quite a few elderly people in the village who have safeguarded these artefacts in cupboards, he said, but with little hope that their children will take care of their prized possessions. Not that they understand their real value either.

Sadly, owing to uninhibited commercial activity in the village, the historical site has been reduced to the fenced ground spread over 10-12 acres. Further excavation work on the site has not commenced since 1984, with the archaeological department blaming the inactivity on the lack of requisite technology.

This village has the potential of being declared a tourism site. If only the city wakes up to its roots.


A Fountain of Joy

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

It was through a fountain pen that I recently discovered my moment of peace. The long, sinuous lines it created on paper were pure bliss, carrying none of the boorishness of the ball pen or the detachment of the keyboard. They seemed patient and honest, and utterly, utterly personal.Image

For most friends of my generation, fountain pens incite long-lost memories of school days with inky fingers, smudged notebooks and ruined shirt pockets. But they are also the stuff of good luck at examinations, graduation gifts and among the first signs of turning adults.

Why, my first memory of joining the honorary list of grown-ups at school is directly linked to a fountain pen. “No more pencils, the teacher says we are big enough to use the pen now,” I had announced at home with great pride as I fussed over entering the sixth grade.

Out my father emerged from his room carrying an elegant silver box, and opened it to reveal a sparkling silver-and-black fountain pen. To me, the delicately engraved marvel placed over a lustrous black fabric seemed a piece of art, displayed like jewellery in an adorned case. It was a treasured item, a wedding gift from a dear uncle. My father seemed both proud and apprehensive when handing over the responsibility to me. He would inquire about the pen’s well being several times in the coming months.

Those were the days when a talent to write beautifully attracted admirers. And I was often in demand when a need to elegantly write on cards or invitations arose. Writing with the pen brought me artistic fulfillment and kept a check on my rhythm and consistency. The ritual involved in filling the pens with ink tamed me; it even transported me to a momentary Zen-like state.

Then came a remorseless rival in the form of ballpoint pen that, despite its annoying habit to leave pasty blobs of ink here and there in the text, won hands down for its sheer pace and productivity. For the price at which they came, losing ’em wasn’t a big deal. One couldn’t part with a pricey fountain pen that easily; one had to be careful and responsible.

Just as the fountain pens began to prepare for the technological graveyard, the advent of email and other electronic messaging types ruthlessly shook the very existence of manual writing. Today, doing the little writing on paper forms in government offices gives us a shiver.

But while one may expect that email and the ballpoint pen have killed the fountain pen, they have survived. Transformed from an archaic working to an accessory, a bulky Montblanc or a shining Parker is a treasured item for many.

So, after nearby a decade, as I scribbled away with such as a borrowed treasure, the experience left me nostalgic and calm.

This week has been hectic and, to beat stress, I plan to gift myself a fountain pen.

When Power Cuts were welcomed

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

Not so long ago, life was simpler. Power cuts raise a sweat today but back then as children we would desperately look forward to the late evening routine in summer. Incredulous as it may sound to some today, but yes we really did. This was years before a run through the friends’ Facebook profiles replaced post-dinner walks in the street outside.

Power cuts were erratic and occurred without notice. Frankly, this only increased their worth in our eyes. We would be eating, and all of a sudden, darkness would engulf us. There would be a rush for candles, matchboxes and even lanterns. At the risk of sounding dated, I admit this would happen even in my twenties. It was before inverters ceased to be a luxury.

We would rush with the remaining food and leap out of the house into the street, leaving it for mother to struggle with the leftovers and dishes in the candle light.

Power Cut

A late evening power cut did for us what a mobile messenger does for kids today – send an instant mass message. As if on cue, an entire gang of children would gather at a point in the neighbourhood, jubilant, ecstatic, and impatient for the fun to begin.

In the dim light of the moon and stars, we would play hide-n-seek, chor-police, pakdam-pakdai, statue, hopscotch and many more of such indigenous and dying outdoor fun games that urgently need documentation. If it was too dark, antakshari was the best bet.

Sometimes, we would huddle around grandmother, a star storyteller in her own right. Looking back, I guess she must have also yearned for power cuts. When the UPS beeped to death and the television was reduced to a mere box, she felt more at home. Her world would come alive.

We would play as long as the cut went on, no questions asked. With no tab on the deadline, we would lose ourselves in grandma’s fables, leaving it for the power department to decide when the fun would end. The moment the power supply returned, a loud cheer would go up. “Aa gayiiii!” we would shout as the houses lit up, all at once. The games, at whichever stage, would stop and we would scurry back home.

“A cut tomorrow evening too,” was our goodnight wish and the power department never failed us, particularly in the peak of summer.

Come to think of it, the power cuts brought us closer as a family, as neighbours and as a community. They forced us to drop the material for a while and handle stillness. They made our thoughts wander and let our imagination fly.

But wait. Am I going too far? Probably not. In the virtual world today, desperate questions on ‘how to survive a power cut’ are all over with saintly suggestions to netizens, including one asking them to “look inwards for happiness”.

As for me, I am the master of the game.