SUMMER holidays as I recall, were all about tempo- rary migration to the homes of relatives residing faraway. An out-of-town trip to a village or a city, depending on the residence of the host, was on the agenda of every Indian family. Unfortunately, times have changed.
With the slow decline of the joint family system, families today are spending their Indian summers in overpriced and overhyped crowded hill stations in the country and abroad. Today, nuclear families flush with dual incomes, are opting to vacation in exotic destinations. So much so that families prefer showcasing their tailor-made holidays complete with picturesque movie-like locales, on social media.
Interestingly, summer vacation- ing in India has become more of a competitive affair. Vacationing in the homes of your near and dear ones has become passé. Renting out someone else’s home via Airbnb and Homestays appear to be much more fashionable and in demand.
Visiting the ‘native place’
I still recall the time when as children we used to visit the homes of our relatives in the summer holidays to bond
with family members over games, afternoon siestas, and of course enjoying the many seasonal fruits that grew in the
backyard. While I would spend one part of my summer with my maternal family, the remaining would be spent with my
paternal ones. Believe it or not, it was later in life that I realised that these visits unknowingly laid the foundation for my love for travel, good food and good conversation. My summer vacations groomed me, bit by bit, into adulthood. They also helped in understanding life when things often didn’t go as planned.
My strongest memories of my summer vacations remain those spent with two men who influenced my life to a great deal. Gaja (short for Gajanan) mama was a strapping handsome young man in his early forties, who had given up a flourishing career in photography due to an asthma problem that refused to go as he grew older. Gaja mama was in fact my mother’s uncle. The second amongst four siblings (three brothers and a sister), he spent most of his time at home taking care of his siblings who were well into their thirties, which included a visually challenged younger brother, and a sister who suffered from minor health issues every now and then. None of the siblings married and hence found companionship with each other, waltzing happily through life. They lived in a middle-class nondescript neighbourhood next to the ruins of the legendary Vasai Fort.
Their home was simple and wasn’t much to look at except for the large balconies at the entrance and the exit. In the summers, when I would visit Gaja mama, I would see him lovingly take care of this home – he cooked, he cleaned, he gardened, he sewed and embroidered the curtains and bedsheets. His place of pride was the garden he nurtured, with different varieties of plants and flowers.
Gaja mama remained a bachelor his whole life, but he took good care of my cousins and I, like a seasoned parent. In the evenings, after treating us to the local delicacy, the golas (ice candies), he took us for walks at the fort. Here he would explain the history behind each and every stone in the ruins that lay around. The desolate fort, against the backdrop of the sunset, and the stories he told, would appear to come to life.
He also made it necessary for us to learn to stitch small handkerchiefs on his old, hand-operated Singer sewing machine. He saw to it that we had our meals on time, and that we made it a point to read every classic English novel before the vacation ended. He introduced me to the art of gardening and the pleasure that comes in seeing the first bud of plant that shoots up to the sky.
Gaja mama who loved his job immensely and had to give it all up at a young age, instead of being bitter with life, tried to find joy in the simple daily rituals of life. He believed that when life pushes you to a corner, you mustn’t
believe it to be the end. There will always be something else to live for and look forward to.
The other man who was a great influence on me during my visits every summer was my father’s younger brother, Ashok, whom we all fondly called Bhaiyya kaka. A banker whose main job was sanctioning loans to farmers, Bhaiyya kaka, bored with the red tape he was subjected to in his line of work, quit his job one fine day, only to retreat into the jungles of the Western Ghats to convert a 26-acre mountain into a paradise.
For someone who had never farmed in his life, he soon began to grow mangoes, cashews, chickoos, jackfruits, lemons and every other fruit and vegetable one could think of, on his farm. Not only did he experiment in creating new varieties of mangoes, but he also tried his hand at landscaping his farm in different hues and designs. It wasn’t long before agriculture experts and students from agriculture colleges began making a beeline to his farm and him to study and witness his magic first hand.
Bhaiyya kaka too cooked, cleaned and gardened. He also took care to see that the many lands left by his ancestors to the family were not encroached upon by anti-social elements. He read voraciously and had an impeccable taste for music – every morning we were woken up to the mesmerising voice of classical singer Kishori Amonkar. A bachelor till the end, and though he largely lived alone on the huge farm with only his music and books for company, he never seemed lonely. He familiarised me with the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and believe it or not, the songs of pop singer Samantha Fox too.
My time spent each summer with these two single men was an education in itself. Despite not having women by their side, they ran their lives effortlessly, at the same time lending a helping hand to whoever approached them. They did not believe in mediocrity, and excelled in whatever they did. These two men – one young and one old, defied their age and societal norms to live the life the way they wanted to, while not forgetting to pass on the values and experiences they had learnt from the generation before them, to us. Both men passed away in their mid-seventies, and their death left a void in me.
The ravages of time
Meanwhile Bhaiyya kaka’s farm is overgrown and is a jungle again. Ironically a court battle is now raging amongst his heirs for ownership of the land he cultivated his dream on. On the other hand Gaja mama’s Vasai home lies empty, shut and forgotten by the family, surrounded by tall, ugly, concrete skyscrapers.
I finally had a chance to visit Gaja mama’s home with my two teenage daughters this summer, after a gap of decades. Strangely, it wasn’t what I had been describing to them over the years. The house was derelict and falling in places, while the garden, which he had cherished, had long died. The only thing remaining were the memories he had left behind.