Memories of Fire by Ashok Chopra is the story of five school friends who meet after 54 years and look back at their very different lives. The book chronicles post Partition Punjab and the all-pervasive sense of neighbourliness that seems to have vanished—or has it?
Let’s read a few words from the author as he reminisces about the ways of the past.
A few days back, I got an unexpected phone call in the middle of a relaxed Sunday afternoon. “Hi, Ashok. Are you home? We were just around the corner from your house. Wanted to drop off our son’s wedding card. See you in 20 minutes!”
Oh gosh. Nooo!
Firstly, it is Sunday—God’s day. Even He rests today. Secondly, who gives only a 20-minute warning these days? I need, at least, a day’s notice to prepare myself for company. Thirdly, didn’t their son already get married some years ago? Oh yes, I did hear something through the grapevine. The wife had turned out to be… opinionated. How dare she, right?
Anyway, who am I to pry? (But if you ask me, good for her.)
I reluctantly put my book down and got up from my comfortable chair. One swift look around the house and I determined that not much could be achieved in 20 minutes, so, meh. I then made my way to the kitchen to check if I had the basic afternoon tea paraphernalia.
Biscuits – check
Tea – check
Ginger – check
Cardamom – check
Milk – check
Sugar – oops
Uh-oh. I did remember to write it down in my to-buy list. But I didn’t remember to actually buy some. Oh, well. But what can be done now? I live in Gurgaon, where there are no kirana shops close by that one can walk to. There are only high-end grocery stores in malls where one must drive to. Even if one needs to buy a ten-rupee Maggi packet. And although I had heard of websites that do 60-minute grocery deliveries, I hadn’t yet heard of technology that made things appear out of thin air at will. How unfortunate.
Maybe they won’t even drink anything. Usually, these card-giving drop-ins are too short a visit anyway. But damn it, now I felt like having tea. Why don’t I just borrow a cup from my neighbour? I remember, as a child, my mother would send us countless times to our neighbour’s to borrow sometimes this and
on other days that. And the neighbour too would be doing the same regularly.
‘Uff, ghee khatam hai. Chal fatafat saath wali aunty se katori le aa.’
‘Yeh saare biscuit kaun kha gaya? Aunty se ek packet pakad la.’
‘Achha sun, woh aunty ka na gas cylinder khatam ho gaya hai. Humara extra wala de aa.’
If I was being paid a million dollars, I still wouldn’t be able to recount the million times this give-and-take took place. In fact, not just in terms of giving and taking, the entire neighbourhood lived as one big close-knit happy family! We knew exactly who lived where; how many people lived in each house;
all their names; their hobbies; their secrets. Sometimes, we even knew how many times Khan Uncle had burped during the day (only because he loved telling this thrilling piece of information to anyone who would listen). Aunties and neighbourhood uncles would leave their children in our homes for a few nights if they had to go out of town in an emergency.
But today, I don’t even know my neighbour’s name. Now, you know as well as me that it isn’t just my ignorant self; this is true for most people. Everyone is so busy trying to be self-sufficient, they’ve forgotten how to build relationships. They are so curious to know what’s happening in the life of a friend living 10,000 miles away that they simply ignore the people sitting right beside them. There are
many instances that youngsters don’t even know their own cousins. They have more ‘friends’ on Facebook than the ones they could actually have a real conversation with.
Wait a minute, didn’t this neighbour in question also send me a friendly request last month? I remember being somewhere else at the time I received it. There was loud music, too many people … ah, yes, of course. My school reunion! Oh, how I’d been looking forward to that evening. I had spent the entire train journey to Shimla in hopeful anticipation. Though I knew what my friends were up to through their pictures on social media, I wanted to hear the real stories of their lives and everything in them. But it sure turned out to be disappointing. A BIG waste of my time. It was obvious phones had replaced actual dialogue: ‘So, my grandkids got a sweet puppy recently. Let me show you a video of him.’
‘Ashok, I know you’re into organic farming and I thought of calling you just last month to know your tips and tricks. But, guess what, I simply googled it and voila. Now, I have a garden full of basil, cherry tomatoes, green chillies…’
I am not against progress. But people are simply losing the art of making a connect. Not the WiFikind, but a personal one. WhatsApp may be ‘instant conversation in a few words’ but the art of letter-writing has disappeared. Maybe they will find a way to reinvent it. Or maybe they will…
And before I could finish my thoughts on the ever-changing world, or find the courage to ask my neighbour for some sugar, I was inviting my friends in and asking them if they’d like some tea.
‘Yes, of course. But please no sugar for us. We’ve been off it since a while. It is so bad for your health, you see. There have been reports all over …’
It all always does work out in the end–in the past as well as now.