(latest version of a prose poem recently published on Medium…)
In India, in the rainy season, verdant medians become prime pasture grounds, and national highways are turned into bovine dormitories.
Think I exaggerate? Traffic obediently skirts a calf napping in its path and slows to walking pace behind a herd on the move – with or without a herder.
Cattle are never in a hurry, you need to learn from them. Admire the beauty of the brahma bull strutting his stuff on the left, while avoiding the black heifer resting on the asphalt to your right.
A day trip to the hills becomes a test of endurance as an “All-India Conference Of Cows” congregates at the crossroads (I thank my witty sister-in-law for that expression). We don’t lose our sense of humor on account of a few cows – not even a few dozen of them.
Then there’s pedestrians who cross the road as in a trance, and motorbikes coming at us the wrong way – without lights – after dark. Oncoming cars never dip their high beams.
Add to the mix a few buffalo, goats, and stray dogs – not to mention speeding buses that straddle the lane marker and overloaded trucks in danger of toppling.
Given enough time, one gets used to it all. Just don’t tell me that traffic is worse between Delhi and Gurgaon. You metro dwellers only have other cars to contend with.
My brother-in-law, Shahnawaz, was embarking on a business trip to Matkuli, a village situated between Hoshangabad and Pachmarhi. Because it was so close to Pachmarhi (a place I’d wanted to see for a long time) hubby and I happily joined the expedition, as did his wife, Ruby.
Pachmarhi is the one and only hill station in Madhya Pradesh, perched near the highest peak in the Satpura range, Dhupgarh. A chance discovery in 1857 led to the plateau being developed into a British army cantonment and a place for soldiers to regain their health. After Independence, and before the advent of air conditioning, the Madhya Pradesh state government used it as a summer capital to escape the oppressive pre-monsoon heat.
Today the cantonment is still used by the Indian military, and also houses a police training institute. The little town sits 1,100 m (3,600 ft) above sea level, in the middle of a large nature reserve. Elevation and tree cover make it an ideal vacation spot, with lots of natural beauty: waterfalls, wildlife, splendid panoramas, caves, and forests. That Pachmarhi is relatively unknown, and thus not overrun with tourists, is due to a conscious conservation effort: even for local people it’s very hard to get a construction permit (outsiders can’t buy land or property here at all), and building height is restricted. Tribal people that inhabited the surrounding forest were relocated so wildlife could thrive, an effort that has been remarkably successful (as far as the animals are concerned). Even so, there’s a steady influx of visitors from nearby cities like Bhopal, Indore, and Jabalpur, as well as from the neighboring state of Maharashtra. The Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board has transformed a number of the colonial bungalows into comfortable retreats, and the oldest one, Bison Lodge, into an information center/ticket office/museum.
Shahnawaz, a retired engineer turned gentleman farmer, was on a mission to buy several hunderd fruit trees, mainly mango and lemon, for the orchard at Haarmau, the village founded by my late father-in-law. Matkuli is home to a huge government nursery that specializes in mango trees, with lots of different varieties on offer. I loved the funny-sounding name until I came across its unsettling etymology: “Used as a place for the British in Pachmarhi to get ‘Maids and Coolies,’ hence the name – Maid-Coolie – to Matkuli.” (Source: WikiMapia).
Crossing several bridges along our way, we were dismayed by the low water levels in the rivers. The monsoon in our state has not lived up to its promise this year. But soon after our car started the final, curvy stretch of road, the sky darkened and a fine drizzle started coming down, followed by a few showers. For the duration of our stay, we would be walking in a surreal landscape, shrouded in clouds and mist, enough to obscure the famed panoramas, with intermittent rain. It would not stop us from trying to see as much as we could of Pachmarhi. We had come prepared, with umbrellas and rain ponchos…
The garden of our hotel (one of the aforementioned bungalows) was very pretty, with manicured lawns, tall rosebushes, and all kinds of other plants, but we could only gaze at it from the veranda unless we wanted to get drenched. And due to the fog, or low-hanging clouds, we could see nothing beyond it. Yet it was not cold, and despite the humidity, the temperature was just right for venturing out.
Mother Nature definitely is the star in Pachmarhi. We took a forest guide on board for the excursion to Dhupgarh, the highest point at 4429 ft. Leading the way, Jaggi Pal (pictured below) kept disappearing into the undergrowth and returning with curious leaves (like the silver fern that leaves an imprint when pressed onto skin or clothing), edible and medicinal forest plants that we were urged to smell and taste, and tree sap running down the bark of saal trees that had solidified into frankincense (demonstration by means of fire included!). We made a plan to come back in a month or two, to explore the area some more and hopefully get to see some gaur (bison) or who knows, maybe even… a tiger.
The view from my window inspired this prose poem, written earlier this year, before the monsoon started…
From my bedroom window I can see the madrassa boys play cricket. I can hear their joyful shouts as they’re at last unwinding after a long day of learning. I smile, peering down through the branches of the red-flowering palash tree, at these skinny kids in their white skullcaps and shalwars, their little blue and grey kurtas. They run about, oblivious of the 107-degree heat, the threatening thunderstorm, across the cracked earth of their playing field, barefoot on the withered thatch of what was once grass, and will be green again, God willing, once the monsoon breaks.
Meanwhile in Morocco, clouds have fallen onto earth. The viral video shows locals, excited as little children, running around, praising Allah, as surely this must be a sign from Him. A sign, but of what? Here in India, half a world away, the images travel by WhatsApp, to the believers and the skeptics alike. A close-up shows a hand scooping up what looks like foam. Weird, aren’t clouds composed of water? Did we not learn that in school? The cycle of evaporation and precipitation? Elementary, my dear Watson.
The madrassa boys are poor. Which is why they get their education in this religious charity school. I wonder if any of their parents own a smartphone, but most likely their teachers do. Even these youngsters must have heard of the miracle, in far-away North Africa. Surely they’ll discuss it later, as they crowd, eager for their evening treat, around the panipuri vendor with his glass case full of goodies, in front of the school’s rusty gate.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a “thing” for tiles. As a small child I was fascinated by the rustic floor tiles in my Flemish great-aunt’s house. Our recent trip to Vietnam brought on many a déjà vu experience in this regard, as similar tiles often grace restaurant floors there, possibly as a result of French influence.
Later it was blue-and-white Delft tiles, Persian and Turkish tiles in hues of turquoise and lapis lazuli, Goan tiles with rose designs on a green background, and multicolored Mexican Talavera tiles that made my heart beat faster. The vast majority of these treasures were found indoors, but in Portugal, tiles are everywhere. It’s not unusual to see the whole facade of a Lisbon townhouse covered in azulejos, as they are called locally.
So, while in Lisbon two years ago, I insisted on visiting the Tile Museum, dragging along my daughter and my somewhat reluctant husband. He expected to be bored and just went along to humor me. Guess what? By the end of our visit, he was just as enthused as I was!
The museum is located in an old monastery (Madre de Deus, dating back to the 16th century), and while walking through it, one can also admire its amazing gilded chapel. The art of tile making, and its Moorish roots, are shown at the beginning, followed by room upon room of splendid pieces and whole tile murals representing (among other things) artwork by Flemish masters.
The museum cafeteria has a charming courtyard surrounded by greenery, with a lovely fountain, inhabited by a family of turtles, as its focal point. A fitting end to a lovely afternoon.
Sometimes a stray word drops in, trailing a cartload of memories…
Image credit Kelsey Johnson (freeimages.com)
The other day, a curious word suddenly came out of nowhere into my mind: “bollekesgoed.” It’s a word I’ve heard used exactly once in my life, in that form, when I was a young girl listening to my mom reminisce about World War II.
My mother was born in 1928. She was a schoolgirl when the war broke out. When the awful news was officially announced, classes were dismissed until further notice. My mom and her classmates, all of twelve years old, felt mostly exhilarated to get this unexpected vacation. If they had ever heard their parents talk of WWI, the horror of war had not really sunk in. Just like when she, in turn, shared her wartime memories with my sisters and me, it seemed almost like an exotic adventure to our innocent ears, not the five-year-long nightmare it must have been.
Throughout my childhood, these wartime anecdotes were told now and again, and some have stayed with me. The one about my grandfather bringing home a gigantic sack of rice soon after war was declared, and my grandmother scolding him for that extravagance: “How often do we use rice anyway?” She could not see beyond the fact that rice was not a staple food in Flanders. It was cooked maybe once a week for the sake of variety, or to make a festive rice pudding on occasion. But when wheat and potatoes became scarce, that hoard became a lifesaver for her family.
Other stories have receded in the mists of time, but sometimes unexpectedly return to the present. Like the “bollekesgoed” one.
Perhaps by now the more curious among you have googled the word. Perhaps you have even found a translation. It’s an old fashioned Flemish word for the modern Dutch “nopjesstof,” or “polka-dot material” in English. The story was told one year when polka dot dresses were suddenly in fashion, showing up in shop windows and catalogs. My mother said: “It reminds me of the post-war years, when we were given ration coupons for dress materials. Women still made much of their clothing at home in those days, or had it stitched by a seamstress. The cloth mills were affected by the war and every family was allowed to buy only a few meters of material per month, not only during the war, but for several years after it. Some people would trade their coupons for things they needed more urgently, or sell them on the black market. But even with enough coupons, you were at the mercy of the supply. There was not much choice. One time there was nothing but bollekesgoed to be had, and everyone walked around in their bollekesgoed dresses.”
“Bollekesstof. Material printed with bollekes, polka dots.”
The day, not long ago, that this funny word popped into my head out of the blue, it brought in its wake not just that story, but a bunch of others, once told by my parents and grandparents, related to the wartime. Stories of scarcity, of smuggled butter, of millers running their windmills at night, of villagers secretly listening to coded messages from their government in exile, on radios that they should have turned in to the Germans but didn’t. Everyday stories populated with long-gone relatives and family friends. (Heroics or treachery were seldom mentioned. I guess my family was luckier than most and survived those turbulent years without major upheavals.) It feels like leafing through an ancient album full of fading photographs that, for a moment, regain their former brilliance and sharpness.
I often complain about my failing memory these days, and I can only be grateful for this blast from the past. I hope it happens again, soon.
Why was it so difficult to trace the German general? First of all, Wagner is a fairly common name and, in retirement, Major Rauf did not remember his first name. He once told my husband and me that the German officers were treated more like guests than like prisoners after their surrender, and that he’d had many conversations with General Wagner, who was “an officer and a gentleman.” Somehow, a kind of friendship, based on mutual respect, had blossomed between the two military men. My father-in-law was certainly impressed with the German’s dignified bearing, as well as his stories. When the prisoner learned he was soon to be sent to another location, he presented then Captain Rauf with the two daggers, referring to them as treasured souvenirs. The German dagger, he said, had been presented to him by the Führer himself, the Italian one by the Duce, Mussolini.
For the longest time, we took these stories at face value. But when we started researching the daggers we were informed, in a letter from an authority on the subject (Thomas M. Johnson, author of the multi-volume “Collecting the Edged Weapons of the Third Reich”) that they were actually not all that rare, and that the German one (a “second-model naval dagger”) had been routinely issued to officers of the Kriegsmarine.
This news obviously dulled some of the German officer’s aura. Perhaps “that Wagner” had not been quite as high up and well connected (if you can use that term in a case like this) as he’d suggested. However, a few words scribbled on the back of an envelop would change all that, again.
We were moving house. As I was packing the contents of a drawer, I came across the famous daggers, together with a folder containing the information relating to them that we had collected some twenty years ago. On top was an envelope that I did not remember seeing, with something scribbled on it in my husband’s hand: Wagner surrender – Rhodes Island, 8 May 1945. I dropped everything and googled those words.
“Our” general was no lesser a figure than Otto Wagener (note the spelling variant!), who had signed the instrument of surrender for the German forces in the Greek islands known as the Dodecanese to the British on 8 May 1945.
I found out that Otto Wagener had died in Germany in 1971, a few years before my husband arrived in Belgium. Even if we’d succeeded in tracing him earlier, it would still have been too late for Abbaji to reconnect with “General Wagner,” as he had once hoped. Wagener had written a book published in 1978, seven years after his death, that had in the mid 80s been published in an English edition. It was available on amazon.com. I ordered it right away, of course, and while doing so, I also found a collection of stories from his life, published even later and available, in German, for Kindle (I’m ordering that one next). When I perused the latter book’s table of contents, I saw at once that it was all about his glory days and, unfortunately for us, there was apparently no mention of the perhaps embarrassing (to him) chapter of his life as a POW at the end of WWII.
The same goes for the translated book. Reading some of the reviews, I discovered that Herr Wagener had never wavered in his admiration for Hitler and blamed all the evils of the Third Reich on Hitler’s “bad advisors,” namely, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler. The book, titled “Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant,” centers on his personal history with the Führer. Historians were happy with this new source of information about the years leading up to Hitler’s coming to power in 1933. Some, however, pointed out that, surprisingly, Hitler as described by the adoring Wagener appears to be much more of a humanitarian, especially compared to the way he emerges from his own straightforward writings (Mein Kampf, etc.)! There seem to be quite a few reviews and comments on Wagener’s memoir available on the internet today, and it will take me some time to read all of them, as well as both books.
But one important thing I learned is this: Otto Wagener, an economist and World War One veteran, had indeed been a confidant and favorite of Hitler’s from 1929, when he was made Chief of Staff of the SA (aka Stormtroopers) and asked to design the Nazi party’s economic policy. Some time in 1933, however, he was supplanted in Hitler’s favor by Hermann Goering. Wagener then temporarily disappeared from the scene, only to return to active service as a Navy captain in 1938, rising to the rank of Generalmajor (according to Wikipedia, this rank is similar to the British “brigadier” and not equivalent to the British “major-general,” though superior to “colonel”) by the end of the war. It’s not entirely unthinkable that he received his ornamental dagger directly from Hitler’s hands.
As for the Italian dagger, that one is described in catalogs as a “Fascist Leader’s Dagger,” also no rarity. I wonder if I will ever discover how he really came by it. But as to how Major Abdul Rauf Khan, my father-in-law, obtained both of them, there’s no doubt whatsoever about that part of the story.
One day in the early 1990s our youngest child, Haroun, took two daggers to school for show-and-tell. Amazingly, he did not get in trouble. Those were less fearful times. His presentation was a huge hit, and he savored the afterglow of his fifteen minutes of fame for a long time.
The daggers have a history. They’re heirlooms that belonged to Haroun’s paternal grandfather, the late Major Abdul Rauf Khan, known by his descendants as “Abbaji.” And he in turn, the family lore goes, received them as a gift from a German general he was guarding at a POW camp in the Mediterranean, after the capitulation of the German armed forces in 1945. Abbaji was a captain in those days, serving in the British Army under Nawab Hamidullah Khan, the last ruler of Bhopal. According to Wikipedia, the nawab’s unit “was present” at the battles of Keren and El Alamein. I have yet to find out what role they played.
The first dagger bears the eagle emblem of the Third Reich, the other the symbols of Mussolini’s fascist rule in Italy. For years my husband has been trying to piece together the history of these two ornamental weapons, but it’s been an uphill journey. We learned a bit about their significance after we had them photographed and sent the pictures to a magazine for collectors of war memorabilia.
And the other day, purely by accident, I was able to add a significant piece to the puzzle.
My father-in-law was a man of few words, and his sons were too much in awe of him to ask him many questions. There are old black-and-white photos floating around, of him (in uniform) and by him, some taken in Cyprus, others on Rhodes Island (Rhodos) in Greece, or in Alexandria, Egypt.
There is also a war diary, written in Urdu, that my husband took abroad in order to save it from being eaten by termites or bookworms in Bhopal, and planned to translate, one day, for the benefit of the younger generation. The Indian climate is not kind to paper.
When he made a tentative start on the project, the initial information he encountered was less than thrilling. Something to the tune of: “Arrived at Alexandria. Price of one kilo rice Rs. … ; one kilo sugar … ; price of one chicken, Rs. …, ” etc., etc.
On those rare occasions that Abbaji was in the mood to share more personal reminiscences, he sometimes mentioned a “General Wagner,” a German prisoner of war who had, apparently, left a deep impression on him. When we lived in Belgium, he asked us to try and find out what had happened to the general after the war, and if he was still alive. Our search yielded nothing. There was no World Wide Web, no Internet in those days, and although we continued to check once in a while in later years, we were unable to find anything at all before Abbaji passed away. After his death, our attempts became even more infrequent.