The things you never want to lose

Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose wrote Kevin Arnold. I was reminded of these words yesterday when I finally mustered the courage to go and see what was left of the homes of my dear Lohar friends. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw: a desolate stretch of road strewed with the last vestiges of what once was a vibrant and happy place.

I walked along the remnants of over three decades of life of more than thirty families I had learnt to know, love and respect, careful not to tread on anything. You see I was privy to what the scattered plastic bags, the lone table and bed left in a hurry, the bits of cardboard that littered the ground, the broken pot, the bricks actually were. They were what remained of the trials and tribulations of a proud people who had valiantly refused to let go of their heritage. I could not hold the tears that poured unabashedly from my tired eyes. All that lay helter skelter on the ground was also past of 10 years of my own life.

There were things in this almost hallowed ground that I never wanted to lose. I sat on the lone discarded charpoy - rope strung bed - and let memories flood my mind. I remembered the day when I first visited the Lohar camp. I had come to meet the head of the clan in the hope that he would agree to our opening a small class for the children. I did not know what to expect. I was made to sit on a charpoy - was it the one I was sitting on today? - and a few minutes later a diminutive man came and sat next to me and asked me what I wanted. I looked into his eyes and was immediately touched by the gentleness and serenity that emanated from him. He was the tallest small man I had ever met! The rest is history: we began our classes the very next day. There was no real reason for my coming to the camp again but that was not to be. For the next months, years and more I found myself coming back with almost obsessive regularity.

Whenever I had a problem that plagued me or felt under the weather and in need of a shot of optimism, I found myself walking to the Lohar camp and spending time with Tau and his people. Very soon they knew I did not drink fizzy drinks but had my tea black, and before I could even catch my breath a warm syrupy glass of black tea was in my hand. We talked of everything and nothing and got to know and respect each other in no time. I always found answers to my concerns and they shared their angst. And that is how I came to know about their plight and how they had been let down by the authorities. Soon we were ready to file our PIL in Court. I remember the day when the matter came up for admission. I had been too chicken to go to Court and had decided to wait for the outcome at the Camp with Tau. As I paced up and down, Tau came up to me and told me to stop worrying. Had they not waited for 400 years, they would for a few more if need be. I was stunned. How could anyone have such resilience in the wake of so much abuse. I must admit I felt very small.

I remember the day when I had taken Tau to the Habitat Centre for a conference on nomadic tribes. As we walked towards the hall, there was another meet going on. Tau asked me what it was and I told him it was a talk on the existence of God. He looked at me with a bemused smile and said agar hum hain to woh hai, agar hum nahin to woh kahan - if we exist then so does He, and we do not then how can He -. I was speechless. What a beautiful and logical way of resolving the age old debate of God's existence! Wished Tau could have been a speaker at the very upmarket talk. I could go on about the moments spent with Tau, he puffing on his hookah a benign smile on his wizened face, his eyes filled with tender concern, and me rattling on about my problems which in hindsight seem so inconsequential. He would sometimes say something but most of the times just being able to pour out all my angst was enough to make me come alive.

So many memories crowd my hurting mind as I walk this desolate road. And no just of Tau but of so many others. How can I forget little Ritu, a bonny three year old with a mop of curly hair, a burnt copper complexion and two huge eyes that twinkled all the time. She was our little guide when anyone came visiting. All I had to tell her was to show her house and she would take the person’s hand in her little chubby one and march off in the direction of her home which was the last tent on the far side of the camp. When she reached her tent she would enter it with aplomb and then with an almost regal gesture proclaim yeh hai – this is it – as if she was showing a palace. She would then ask you to sit on the bed and march off looking for her mom. Soon the tent would be full of neighbours and the inevitable bottle of coke would appear from nowhere. Such was the generosity of this proud people.

Then there was Geeta and Sarika our two creche teachers. They were so beautiful that it took your breath away and made you remember all the tales about the beauty of Gypsy women. What never ceased to amaze me was the fact that they and all the other young girls of the camp were always impeccably turned out, their hands and toe nails painted bright and never chipped. Now imagine achieving this when you live on the street with no running water and in the midst of coal dust and car fumes. Quite a feat! But that was not all, each of these waif like women were able to beat iron wielding a hammer so heavy that you would barely be able to lift it off the ground. They did that with such grace that it almost looked like the steps of an intricate ballet. I often looked at my shabby self and wished I too was born with such grace.

As I stepped across a broken chullah - earth stove - I could almost smell the aroma of the hand slapped rotis - bread - that I had so often shared with the ladies. I must admit I was so fond of them that I timed my visits accordingly. But it was not just the rotis that enticed me, but the women themselves as they were true free spirits and it was always a delight to spend time with them. We laughed and giggled as old friends would and I realised that we were so alike. I could go on about my Lohar friends but it hurts too much. Soon the last remains of their lives will be blown by the wind or simply swept away to make the stretch of road worthy of the passing glance of the Commonwealth Games participants' cavalcade. I wonder how anyone would have been disturbed by the sight of women beating iron or selling their ware, children playing around or wizend men quitely smoking their hookas in the shade. But the powers that are, know better I guess. To me though the Lohars are a tiny bit of India we can truly be proud of and not desperate to hide away.

I miss my friends.

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