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Postcard from Home - Destination India
     
In the dry harsh climate of Chogath, in India's West, Nisar Keshvani discovers his roots on a journey of self discovery in his motherland.

The mention of India brings back vague, yet fond memories. I haven't spent much time there but when I visit I feel at home - there seems to be a little part of me back there.

My ties came to mind only recently, when I moved away from home to study here in Australia. I started re-evaluating my roots and saw the importance of maintaining links with our 'home' countries, even though we belong to the multi-cultural generation.

I was born and raised in Singapore but my heritage lies in India - Gujarat in the west, to be exact.

There have been short trips back to India and each has been a unique experience. This journey with my parents to their respective home towns was no different. My mother comes from a small village called Chogath and it's a half-day's journey from my father's town, Amreli.

From Bombay it takes about three days - a 30-hour train journey on the Sarvodya Express to Ahmedabad.

It is a picturesque ride with the breath-taking Rajasthani desert. Although hills and mountains pepper the journey, signs of poverty and slums scatter the tracks to remind me of the less fortunate and cruel realities of life.

Each stop brings added excitement. Make-shift stalls along the tracks sell delicious, freshly made pakodas (potato fritters) and refreshing chai (tea) to help any traveler regain his zest. Young kids rush up the train carriages, shouting out what they have for sale. Items range from masala (spicy) sandwiches to Thumbs-up (Indian version of Coke). Other kids, just as enterprising, give leather shoes a fresh gleam or men a quick shave for a single rupee.

Every few stops, a young child with dolak (drum) in hand sounds a tune while a group of transvestites perform renditions of the latest Hindi cinema hits, and seemingly to everyone's delight. Friendly passengers engage in chit-chat about their lives and family.

Bumping into a foreigner is rare, and they politely ask me where I come from and what lies ahead.

Upon arrival at Ahmedabad, and after a little price-haggling with the taxi-driver, it's an 8-hour journey to Dhola Junction, near Bhavnagar. Women toiling in the rice fields, cattle and smiling kids are common sights along the way. There is ample opportunity to stop and stretch, or grab a quick Dosai (rice pancake) to make the trip seem a little faster.

Almost halfway there!
The last part of the journey is completed in a tempo (small three-wheeled pick-up). The entrepreneurial driver has packed his tempo with goods that need delivery to the villages and he makes sure the long journey is a profitable one.

Finally, Chogath falls into view. Although weary and hungry, the sight of villagers gathering around the tempo is heart-warming. Not all are Muslims, but they welcome me all the same. That is the magic of village life - Hindus, Muslims and Jains living peacefully together.

With each 'homecoming', seeing a few new faces is inevitable; freshly tied matrimonial bonds and newborns but, sadly, some are missing. Once-familiar faces, now gone into the hereafter, reminding me to cherish each moment with my loved ones. Then it is time for the customary visit to the cemetery to pay respects to my grandparents.

~

Morning arrives and like all big cities around the world, this little village is busy with folk making their way to work. Men with tiffin (packed lunch) in hand head to their jobs, either to run stalls in the marketplace, or to work in fields. I sat at my uncle's sundry stall as customers popped by to pick up daily essentials and chit-chat.

Women begin their day with a trip to the river for the ritualistic dhobi-style clothes wash, fetching water from the wells in groups. Children head to a nearby school, while the younger ones have fun spinning tops or flying kites in an adjacent valley.

~

There's a strong sense of community here. After dinner, villagers gather to chat, smoke and drink tea together. Only one house has a television set and some people congregate there to watch their favourite Hindi series, the Ramayana (Indian folklore epic) on Doordashan TV.

But I sit and talk with my mother as she describes the Samu Lagan, a typical mass wedding. There is one approaching and the village has already begun preparations.

A huge tent with a stage has been set up for almost 30 couples to be married on the same day.

It's an economical option, with each family chipping in a donation for the wedding expenses.

I regret that I won't be present for the Samu Lagan but as my mother continues I can almost see the families busily preparing the bride's dowry with intricate saris and decking her with jewellery, the traditional bronze-plated cookware and a thalli (tray normally filled with ornaments and gifts).

The celebration begins with a mehandi ceremony, where ladies lace their hands with henna. The next day, there is a pithi ceremony, where village women adorn the bride's hands and face with turmeric powder. It is a belief that this softens and whitens the bride's skin so she will be radiant for the wedding.

The bridegroom arrives at the village for a lunch ceremony and the nikah (wedding ceremony). The kadi (marriage solemniser) performs the rituals for three pre-selected couples over the loudspeakers for all to hear. The rest wait patiently as their turn arrives and the two appointed kadis go from couple to couple, performing the traditional Muslim rituals.

Guests rejoice and congratulate the families as the bride prepares to head for the groom's home. The vidai (farewell) marks a sad occasion for her family. They're in tears as she's whisked away by the groom in whatever vehicle he owns, be it bullock cart or bus. This is the symbolic 'sending off' of the bride to her new home.

I will return to my new home, Australia, before the Samu Lagan, missing the chance to witness a traditional Indian wedding. My cousin's marriage will be soon and I hope to be back. It will be the first chance I have to become immersed in my cultural heritage, an integral part of one's being. And again, I will further re-discover my roots.
     
     

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