Friday, April 22, 2005

Myths and truths

I was at St. John's Church in Meerut, wondering where to go next. My train was due to leave for Kanpur seven hours from now, at 7pm. The three church minders had let me loose within, allowing me to touch a ragged but proud-looking Bible held together by tape, letting me press keys on the century-old pipe organ, watching patiently as I ran my fingers over the engravings in bronze plaques embedded in walls to cement the town's history of revolution and christian valiance. I wanted to sit there and fool myself, imagining times seen through biased eyes. Nevertheless, the images were always exciting, always packed with action. These bronze plates told of deaths through sickness, by mutiny, and even the ones that said nothing seemed violent by dint of just being here.

The three keepers, brothers whose family had lived here since 1921, suggested a nearby graveyard. We were in the Cantonment area, the stage for the big one in 1857, but now a serene area where anger and violence seemed relics, etched in epitaphs, carved in bronze. No, this was a place where the steeples of churches rose above clusters of trimmed trees, where the cyclists of empty cycle-rickshaws wheeled by wordlessly, and where batsmen waiting their turn slept in the shade of trees.

There were few signs here, and none that indicated where the graves were. After what seemed like a mile, I found it, and found the gates locked. Dialogue followed, where I had to convince guards within that I wasn't here to break anything. My guide, the caretaker of the graveyard, took me about, proudly pointing out gravestones he thought were pretty and historic, only pausing to tut-tut when he saw a white stone lying about. These were parts of graves, broken down by vandals to throw at trees for fruits. This is what he had imagined me doing as we spoke with the gate between us.

I walked on a swathe of green under a warm sky, unable to speak. I moved from one stone to another, reading 1857, 1821, 1901, 1876. The crypts were enormous, the homage was monumental. The eptaphs accused, cursed and wept. These dotted the landscape of graves and tall grass, where few visitors came. I tried to think but found it difficult because of superstition; I was afraid to tread on someone, and concentrated hard on following my guide's footsteps. My thoughts and actions in the cemetery were unusual. I kept thinking we were outsiders here, and I was trying to not step on a resident's toes. It felt like I was in someone else's home: someone quiet and meditative, urging visitors to behave similarly.

After the meditation came the party. Old Meerut was alive as one giant marketplace, with rickshaws pressing into impossibly narrow lanes, the aroma of piss from open gutters and jalebis and mithai rising, and well-oiled children in shorts out with their fathers. Fruit sellers blocked paths to cloth shops whose storekeepers sat lazily, unmoved by the obstruction. It seemed somewhat philospohical: if anybody needs cloth, or anything, they will squeeze past the fruitstall and come for it; until then I will nap.

These keepers were the hosts, the customers their guests and I was the new guy at the party, asking naive questions. "Where's Ravana's father-in-law's home?" I asked one host, who smiled chidingly and said I wouldn't find it here. I had heard this marketplace was where Ravana's wife came from. I did not expect to see the it, but was still disappointed. But the storekeeper did point me up the hill where the market winded. Walking upwards, I found a certain quiet and happy laughter. There were carefully painted homes on either side of the narrow lane. Large families of different religions lived in each home, inherited from parents who had inherited it from theirs and so on. Their homes were coated in red, yellow, green, blue and pink. This suited me better than holi, which got in your ears and toenails.

As I wound through the labyrinth, peering through open doors and stopping to listen to conversations, I was nostalgic. The colony of my childhood had unlocked doors, long hours of doing nothing and uncles who did not mind broken windows. Everyone had aged, but the buildings of my memory were fresh white, my neighbour's hair was still black, the price of a paratha was still 25 Fils. So it was entirely apt that, in this mist of nostalgia, I stumbled upon the Jama Masjid, for a mosque was the center of my colony: the place outside which meetings and cricket matches were arranged, where we talked away time, where we met uncles and aunties who told our parents what we had been doing.

A side entrance at the masjid opened to a large courtyard where pigeons clustered, pecking at seeds spread beside a large basin of water. Its minarets were blue, its doorways green, as was the water, and inside were two hands preparing for the next prayer. One of the two noticed me and my shoes on the ground. He placed them sole to sole so that the dirt outside did not come in contact with the santity inside.

Sit where you like, he said. You can even come in if you want to. I thanked him for the offer, choosing to sit outside. Watching the birds, the bearded constable who enforced discipline in errant children, the nervous young man waiting for his first ever prayer, the opening of the main mosque gates, I thought that, though these were everyday occurences, I was new to this. For the first time, I was looking. I wondered what else I had missed all along.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, I'm humbled by your ability to capture the spirit of what would seem to me to be an ordinary, uninteresting place. You travel with your eyes wide open, and since you do that, you should consider letting more of us read pieces like this. Ever tried Outlook Traveller, or some other such?

Anonymous said...

I have been the Church Organist at St. John's Church, Meerut (formerly St. John's Garrison Church, a Anglican High Church) for the past 3 years and am also the Lay Reader and Preacher. Unfortunately, the Grand Old Pipe Organ is no longer in service as it requires repairs the expertise for which is not available locally.

It is nice to know that our Church has interested visitors even today, when most of the parish has broken up (particularly the youth that choose to disperse and head for greener pastures). During the weekend I drive 50 miles (80 Km) each way from the place were I work as an IT Executive to be present for the Sunday morning Church Service (Summer timings 8:30 AM to 10:00 AM, Winter timings 9:30 AM to 11:00 AM) and my family (and relatives) have four generations that have served God as members of this old Church.

Do try to come over during Service if any of you do pass again. It is an experience worth going through... with a very welcoming congregation.


praveen said...

I am a small time organist in the local CSI church here in Pondicherry[near chennai].Is there any possibility of the pipe organ in St John's being restored.Many such Organs have been restored in Chennai and Bangalore,though at a heavy cost.St John's has place in history and you can think of getting funds from the gov't to restore this heritage instrument.-Praveen,