The year was 1940. It was Magha in the Hindu lunar calendar. The Sun God was in Uttarayana. The Devas were offering their morning prayers. The portal to Heaven was open. On planet Earth, the mortals were stirring to welcome Vasant Panchami. A harvest festival flushed with food, flavors, fragrance, and fun. A fiesta of kites was coloring the skies. Bharat was in the clutches of the mercenary British empire. Bushels of gold, silver, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and black gold(pepper) were flowing into the pipes of the Raj.
He was eleven years old. Everyone knew him in the Krishna Nagar Mohalla, Lahore. The sweet water of the Five Rivers “Punjab” flowed in his veins. His feet were a few feet above the fertile land. He was born a Sufi. A Dervish. His family called him Kaka. His sisters Rama, Sunita, Santosh, and Tripta called him Pahjii (older brother). To cousins he was Pah. His Jhaiji (ma) and Maji (grandma) called him Nikka, as they stood on the street corner at dusk, watching out for his lanky frame on a bicycle. Curly dark locks flying in the wind. He was a force to be reckoned with. His birthplace shared a wall with a Krishna temple. Bhakti of the Blue God was imbued in his soul like the Raag Basant Bahar. Always eager to help everyone. Ever ready to share stories, and always immersed in poetry. Solving riddles of life with a flick of his fingers. He knew which neighborhood aunty made the best ladoos. Which house received bushels of guavas. Who saved a tall glass of thandai for him. Which uncle played chess and which aunty loved shahtoots (mulberries). Friends of all ages called him Vatta out of affection. He had charisma. He was carefree. Fearless.
To him, every day was a festival. Vasant Panchami was his favorite day of all. Perhaps because he was born close to Vasant. Spring was in the air. He was up at the crack of dawn. After procuring a fistful of annas (coins) from Maji, he woke up his sister Tripta. They were off like the wind on his trusty bike. They rode along Nisbet road to Gawalmandi to purchase kites. The shops were decorated with multicolored guddis, paris, and magnificent patangs. Delightful with colorful crepe paper streamers. There was enough money to buy a dozen kites, dor (sturdy string coated with crushed glass), and wooden charkhis.
Tripta was good at striking a bargain without even trying. Melting at her enchanting smile, shopkeepers gave them five percent extra merchandise or chunga. Moreover, the merchants held their gentle father Lala Gyan Chand Kapur in high regard. The halwais of Gawalmandi were setting up shop with big kadhais of hot milk, mounds of kalakand, jalebi, and chhole-puri. Women dressed in floral pink and yellow sarees and phulkari dupattas were going to the temple for Saraswati Puja, melodious bhajans reverberated in the city center. The brother and sister stopped to get breakfast. They bought two donas of kadah – his all-time favorite – made with equal parts of cream of wheat, butter, and sugar. Tripta always got more kadah or halwa in her dona but she exchanged her dona with her brother’s. Their love soared like a yellow kite in a blue sky. Fearless.
The year is 2021. I am a grandmother now. My grandson will soon be eleven. I never knew dad at that age but in many ways, he never grew up. I wish I could have accompanied him on the streets of Lahore but he never went back after the partition of India in 1947.
Last night, I dreamt that our home in Mumbai was decorated with garlands of mango leaves and orange marigolds. Mom looked angelic in her rose pink sari and dad’s shirt was tinted in buttercream. The Krishna idol was resplendent in yellow pitambar and a fresh vyjayantimala graced his neck. Koels were singing on the mango tree, mom had planted in the courtyard. The black golden retriever was beside himself in joy. The house was bustling with festivities. Trays of fragrant saffron basmati rice, flavorful yellow pumpkin sabzi, halwa, puffed puris, dahi bhallas, sweet and tangy chutneys were being placed on the breakfast table.
Dad was sitting with his grandchildren sharing their candy and reciting his school assembly poem to them “Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua“ (Urdu: لب پہ آتی ہے دعا بن کے تمنا میری), authored by Muhammad Iqbal in 1902. He regaled the children with stories about Vasant Panchami the “Shah of all Seasons”. He painted word pictures of children playing tag in billowing mustard fields. He told them about Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire, who encouraged the celebration of Vasant Panchami in temples and in Gurdwaras. The good king and his beautiful queen distributed food for forty days leading to the Spring festival of Holi. Ranjit Singh organized Vasant melas and sponsored kite flying. The people of Punjab loved this boisterous activity. The sound of – Woh kata! Guddi looto! – jubilance echoed in the maidans.
In my dream, the children sat around their Nanaji( grandpa) their eyes as wide as patangs in amazement. After feasting on stories, they polished off the nutritious home-cooked meal, squabbling over the last puri. Later, Dad took them to the terrace to fly kites. There was a gentle sea breeze. The sky was colored with kites like a multicolored Matisse collage. The kaka from Lahore was having the time of his life! My son was holding his charkhi. My daughter and my nieces were spinning. I was helping Mom in the kitchen. It was a perfect morning dream. I woke up all smiles, beguiled by dad’s playfulness. Tender, mellifluous notes of Raag Basant Bahar played on my heartstrings.
I retold my lucid dream to my grandson in India, who listened to me by candlelight. We laughed. Dad had incarnated the fearless essence of Vasant. He lived his life in accordance with Iqbal’s timeless words.
Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke Tamanna meri
Zindagi shama ki surat ho khudaya meri
(The longing of my heart alights my lips
May my life be lit like a candle of wisdom…)
And, it was. It most certainly was. Fearless.
Monita Soni, MD has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.