The Tavdi bridge

Berjis Desai

Berjis Desai’s new column "Navsari tales” evokes nostalgia for a way of Parsi life (from 1880 to 1980) that has been irretrievably lost. The stories of the glory days of that city, laced with both humor and pathos, have been slightly fictionalized.

Hirabai’s house had no door. Although it had only a couple of beds, with their legs tied together by a coarse rope, and a large wooden table, the house did not look empty. A kind of darkness filled it. Of course, there was no electric connection. At dusk, a solitary bulb was lit through a wire connected to the neighbor’s two-storeyed house, which though modest itself, looked a resplendent mansion in contrast to Hirabai’s hovel. Ironically, it occupied the best spot in the moholla called Seervai Vad. Sitting on the steps, Hirabai’s four daughters could partially see the imposing Navsari Atash Behram; and all the horse-drawn carriages, which transported people from the railway station to Seervai Vad, stopped in front of Hirabai’s house. While all the other houses in Seervai Vad shared a common wall with the immediate neighboring house, Hirabai’s was separated from her electricity supplying neighbor Rustomji’s house, by a two-foot-wide open space ending in Rustomji’s backyard called paachhloo bar. Unintentionally, it highlighted Hirabai’s pariah status in the Vad. Of course, she and her family freely entered any house and sat and ate and talked. The inequality was subtle. And Hirabai had no grouse about it. As a matter of fact, she would have felt uncomfortable otherwise.
Her body clock woke Hirabai every morning at 3.45 a.m. She slept on the floor as the beds were too weak to bear her weight. The alacrity with which Hirabai sprang up and stood was a matter of much amusement for her daughters who shared the beds. She pulled out a neem tree twig from a bundle and trudged her short and stout form to the well in the backyard with an exceptionally low parapet. Once her husband, in drunken stupor, had walked into the well and had to be pulled out with great difficulty. When his liver, pickled in hooch made from mahua flowers finally gave up, Hirabai had celebrated her widowhood by letting off yelps of unadulterated joy. She clenched the twig between her teeth and spat out. Unlike Rustomji who had a pulley fitted on his well, Hirabai had to use her muscular arms to the fullest extent to lower and then pull out the brass vessel and empty the water on herself. She never removed the maroon colored cotton sari or her blouse and petticoat. Nor the yellowing sudreh. Her only other set of clothes was in Tavdi, a village 10 km from Navsari, where Hirabai and her husband had been born.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


As the morning progressed, the hot Navsari sun dried both Hirabai and her clothes. However, this practice made her smell, not repulsive, but peculiar. Hirabai’s poverty had a distinct odor. Rustomji’s portly wife, Bachamai, donated yearly a pair of Bombay Dyeing towels, which had thinned to the point of tearing, to Hirabai’s daughters who, unlike their mother, washed themselves meticulously after vigorously rubbing gram flour into their unshaven armpits and the crevices of their thighs. Once someone had given them an old cake of soap which they had cut into four uneven pieces and used for a couple of weeks.
Every Friday, Hirabai walked to the Tavdi local market and brought back dried Bombay duck, papad and raw mango pickles to sell in Navsari. She also changed into her other set of clothes. Barring the winter months, the strong sun made her perspire profusely on her return journey to Navsari early evening. This routine was altered only if a Friday happened to be a no-moon day. Walking over the Tavdi bridge, before sunrise or after sunset, particularly on no-moon days, was to court disaster. A particularly malevolent entity could possess the lone walker’s body and mind, and exorcism costed a fortune. Like all residents of Tavdi, Hirabai was greatly fearful of this phenomenon. Hence, she planned her journey to ensure that the sun was up when she reached the Tavdi bridge. She liked walking behind the group of enthusiastic young men and women singing patriotic songs in Gujarati. Katie, her youngest, smartest and fairest daughter, had informed her that they were doing a prabhat-pheri (dawn march) and were supporters of a man called Mohandas Gandhi. Hirabai would smile at the youngsters and instinctively believed that this Gandhi was a good man.
The remaining six days of the week had an unchanging routine. After the twig brush and the fully clothed bath, Hirabai sat on her haunches to light the wood fire in a depression made in the ground. A large blackened aluminum tapeli filled with well water took ages to boil the mixture of fresh lemon grass leaves, mint (both of which grew in abundance in Rustomji’s sunlit paachhloo bar) and a teaspoon of reject quality black tea powder. Although they missed the milk and sugar, Hirabai’s family savored the mild mint tea with that heavenly lilli chai (lemon grass) flavor. Any gentlemen’s club in London would have been happy to serve this precise concoction to their fastidious members in Wedgwood china.
Sitting on their haunches and sipping tea from large cups with broken handles which had been bought outside the Navsari railway canteen, the four girls watched each other wearily as to which one would grab the opportunity to empty her bowels first. Hirabai suffered from chronic constipation and seldom used the makeshift latrine arrangement at the farthest end of the house. You sat on your haunches over a two-foot hole in the ground and released your stuff in a straw basket. The latrines were a great leveler. All the latrines of Seervai Vad had been marvelously synchronized, despite different houses having been built in different ways and at different times, to ensure that all the straw baskets were placed more or less in a row in a pathway running behind all the houses, which a service worker accessed, twice a day. She announced her presence loudly, before picking up the basket, emptying its contents and replacing it, to warn anyone using the system to suspend the ongoing process. (Navsari watched with wide-eyed wonder when the thunder water closets were first introduced in the mid-1960s.)
During the time the girls completed their ablutions, Hirabai rapidly mixed the jowar flour dough, rolled it into five gargantuan rotlis with the aid of a huge rolling pin and cooked them on a black griddle, called a thikraa, after slapping them into shape. Although the rotlis contained only a pinch of salt, when eaten very hot along with a green chilli paste, they were quite delicious and filling. The five women then left the doorless house together. Hirabai walked down the road to the Minocherhomji Agiary established in 1686, older than the Navsari Atash Behram across it. She swept, dusted and cleaned the utensils for the daily prayers. Her daughters started to carry the chasni containers on their heads and deliver them from the Vadi Daremeher, the 900-years-plus oldest agiary in India, to homes in Motafalia, and sometimes as far as Malesar, the two principal localities of Parsi Navsari.
A couple of years before Katie was born, what had transpired on a no-moon Friday was the talk of the town. That Friday had begun for Hirabai in a copybook fashion. The sun was nice and orange as she stepped onto the Tavdi bridge. She finished her purchases in record time, ate two rotlis and pickles with her elder sister, and thought of resting a bit in the latter’s hut, before the return journey. The backlog of sleep made Hirabai snore and her sister did not have the heart to wake her. When she finally arose from her slumber, the sun was about to set. It was mid December and when she stepped onto the Tavdi bridge, it was pitch dark. She considered returning to her sister’s home for the night but rejected the idea as her daughters would have been worried sick if she did not return to Navsari. Her husband, dying of cirrhosis, was as good as dead. Hirabai began walking rapidly on the bridge. She instinctively touched her sudreh and a cotton thread meant to serve as her kusti. Apart from the bridge being desolate, it was bitterly cold and visibility was poor. Halfway over the bridge, she distinctly heard someone calling out her name. Again and again, softly and soothingly. Much against her instincts, Hirabai stopped and turned to look back.       
                                 To be continued

Berjis Desai, author of Oh! Those Parsis and The Bawaji, occasionally practices law.