K S S Pillai
People have been moving from place to place for centuries for various reasons, suitable employment being one of them. I also had left for distant Gujarat when I was posted in Navsari as a college teacher.
It was a sleepy town with a considerable Parsee population. Sanjan, where their ancestors were offered asylum by the king after being driven away from their country Iran, was not far off.
As promised to the king, they had merged with the local population “like sugar in milk”. Though they have spread to different parts of the country, they have kept their word. In Navsari, they had a Fire Temple for worship and a Tower of Silence for disposing of the dead. The latter was a raised platform where the dead bodies were left to the elements and birds like vultures to avoid contamination of the soil. Two of their illustrious sons, Jamsetji Tata and Dadabhai Naoroji, were born in Navsari.
Many of the Parsees were elderly couples staying alone in spacious houses. Their young ones had left for bigger cities for better prospects, visiting them once in a while. Some of them rented out their rooms to well-employed men staying alone.
One of my colleagues, who had married a few months ago, was about to vacate his accommodation in one such house and offered his place to me. As I was staying in a hotel, I had no hesitation in accepting the offer. I met some of my later friends there. The landlord was also happy to receive me as a tenant.
My stay there was short as my wife was to join me from Kerala. I was allotted accommodation in the university staff quarters but was apprehensive at first as our knowledge of Gujarati was zero. Being assured by others that it won’t be a problem, I accepted the offer.
It had more than enough space for the two of us. All our neighbours were Gujaratis. I had a working knowledge of Hindi, but my wife Ratnam’s proficiency in the language was limited to what she had learnt at school.
There was cultivable land in the front and back portions of the quarters. Ratnam, belonging to a farmer’s family, was interested in starting a kitchen garden. As the unit allotted was on the ground floor, we could also use the back portion. Water was no problem. The college was close-by, and I could reach it in a few minutes. Our neighbours were fellow teachers.
Our housemaid Naina took the responsibility of coaching my wife in conversing with the neighbours. Soon she started communicating with them in a mixture of Hindi and Gujarati, interspersed with a profusion of gestures.
What she lacked in language proficiency was made up with her skill in public relations. She seemed to have decided to make the best use of the adage, “the way to one’s heart is through the stomach”. Our neighbours were interested in the South Indian dishes, particularly idlis and dosas. When she prepared idlis in the morning, she would carry a plateful of them with coconut chutney or sambar to one of the neighbours. The word spread fast, and each family would wait for its turn. In return, the women would present her with their dishes.
Diwali was a special occasion. Days before the festival, all women would gather in one house every day, prepare traditional dishes in groundnut oil, and store them in steel containers. When they came to our quarters, my wife would be ready with her idlis, sambar and chutney.
Differences in customs and manners did not come in the way of accepting us as one of them. Our children grew up on the campus like local children, preferring Gujarati food to that of Kerala, and speaking Gujarati fluently.
Time seems to have passed in a flash. Even after we shifted to our own house after my retirement, the harmonious relationship has continued.
(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to The ‘Kashmir Vision’, his articles and short stories have appeared in various national and international publications)