An old Neem covers the sky above you.
It towers above the new building nearby. It is bent and crooked and old. It stands all the same. No one has seen the tree grow. Not one breathing soul. Perhaps, except one. The haveli from across the lane. The paint has peeled off. The walls are covered with cobwebs, the ground, with weeds. The stones are crumbling down. The doors, made of iron, intrinsically carved, stand shut and locked- exactly like they were that one fateful day. The day the grandmother died and everyone else packed their lives into bundles and moved themselves to better times in the cities. Creepers have grown around the latch, shutting them harder than ever. The windows open if you shove them hard, bringing out a smell. The smell of times long past. Mixed smells of curry and stocked grain. Of spices and cold water. Of hand woven cloth and cow dung. Of men and women. Of beauty and happiness and misery. Of richness and poverty. Of grandfather’s stories and candies. And also of rats and snakes which inhabit the rooms now. The Haveli is not haunted. No. The ghosts have long gone. Sixty years is a long time, even for them.
When you turn the corner, you find yourself on the narrow, forlorn lane. Drains flow down its two sides. The pavement is clean and rough, as if not a foot stepped on it. Walking down the lane, as you experience the sky above, the wet earth below and the braying of a donkey from somewhere afar, you can feel, almost touch those lives which once tread through the same routes. A bunch of young men, with their hair disheveled in the evening breeze, cycling down the road. And those girls, standing right where you stand now, shying away. The boys hoot slightly and peddle away. Except one who follows shyly and looks at a girl and gives her his hand. She looks at her friends. She looks at you, lowers her eyes and settles herself on her lover’s cycle. You have to watch them until they turn the corner and disappear into the oblivion. Its a movie running around haphazardly.
On turning another lane, you come face to face with a wall, painted exquisitely with detailed elephants, all covered in Rajputana attire and their trunks held high. There, in the corner, you can also spot a faded image of people, royal subjects, showering some erased king with rose petals.
Zigzagging through the various twists and turns, you end up looking at your own home. House. You lived in that one, a long time ago. There was a dog who roamed about searching for the mouse. There were watermelons you ate and spit the seeds all around. There was a stack of hindi magazines read and re-read and thumbed at the edges. There were kites, flying over your head in the winter noon, as you climbed those shaky walls, one foot at a time, to get to the top and look at your dear city from the minaret, as that mound of hill looked back at you.
Yes, you remember there were donkeys and carts running down the lanes, skipping over the open drains. You can see those small shops which sold mango candies and bangles made of lac. There, right near that tree is where you had given your poor heart away, where you fell and broke your tooth and also where you lost your fountain pen. None came back. That is the road you took daily to run away to open grounds and chatter. And here you are, on the road you took last, and for once, turned to look back.
People have gone. Places have stayed. Those walls erected then, have come down. Those roads have fewer blocks, and are smoother. If only you could turn back. But you have gone too far and you have lost the count of turns you took.