Wednesday 3 February 2010

curfew, drought and UFOs

Hyderabad, in the late 80s. My family lived right at the entrance to a largely Muslim neighbourhood. Our upstairs neighbours were a Mennonite Christian family and our next-door neighbours were a Muslim family. During the annual Ganesha festival, louts participating in the never-ending processions of Ganesha idols were known to occasionally vandalise Muslim homes or harass their inhabitants. I remember my mother pre-empting this by stationing herself outside our Muslim neighbours' house with a garlanded Ganesha idol.

Conflict is stronger than harmony. Communal tensions led to curfew being declared several times when I was a boy. People were not allowed out in the streets after a certain time in the evening, and even during the daytime there were police checkpoints and patrols all over the place. My father, as a journalist, was exempt.

I was never really scared; except once. Walking through the streets to a nearby market area, I reached a place where there was a barricade across the road. The policemen manning this barricade were armed with rifles. It may have been the first time I had actually seen people bearing such large weapons. I was very terrified as I approached the barricade. Perhaps sensing this, a young policeman confronted me sternly and asked in a very harsh and frightening voice what I wanted. I stammered out that I was on my way to the marketplace. He nodded me through. I walked back the long way around from the marketplace, avoiding the barricade.

In my imagination, the experience was conflated with various war comics and movies into a highly-charged personal narrative. I lived in a war-torn city. The streets were filled with bomb craters, rubble, torn and scattered barbed-wire fences and military camps. I was a resistance fighter, undercover, moving from one safe home to another, carrying supplies, ammunition and important documents right under the noses of the enemy. In my fantasy, I was a tall, slim, strong man, highly trained and capable, but at the same time I was also myself, a little boy who could easily slip through the enemy's check posts.

The other great recurring feature of my childhood in Hyderabad was drought. This happened for several months a year, many years in a row. The water in the taps would dry up altogether and we would have to have water brought to us, first in tankers and later on in a barrel that was wheeled around in a sort of cart. My sister, then only 3 or 4 years old, would jump into this barrel and splash about. She nearly drowned at least once.

Because water was so scarce, we had to have sponge baths. My mother would heat a saucepan of water and give it to me to bathe with. I would wipe myself with a sponge, soap myself up and then wipe myself again until all the soap was removed. These were synthetic sponges, dyed a sickly shade of green or sometimes bright magenta. I never felt entirely clean afterward.

Hyderabad summers are very hot, and I was often thirsty, but we also had to be careful about how much water we drank.

Sometimes I imagined the whole city a vast desert, sweeping vistas of dunes replacing the crowded streets that surrounded our house, the last outpost of civilization in a vast wasteland. Clusters of cactus plants broke up the monotony of sand and sky. A few bones were strewn about, remains of less hardy travellers. I was a seasoned traveller, returning to civilization after a treasure hunting expedition. I would soak a thin towel in water and wrap it around my head - this was a permitted extravagance due to the extreme heat - and walk around the garden, stumbling, weary, bent under the weight of my precious cargo, but doggedly determined. I was tall, handsome, unshaven, a fascinating man with many mysteries in his past, a nameless wanderer who never stayed in one place for long but was always off in search of the next adventure.

My dogs also took part in this game in the character of a faithful pack of half-tame wolves.

I loved to read books about UFOs as a boy. I would simply inhale the pages of any UFO book I could get my hands on, believing every single word and somewhat blurry picture. Many of these stories of UFO encounters had a menacing aspect, but I could not get enough of them. Late at night, though, I would regret reading those books as I lay in bed, the sheets drawn over my head and my legs and hands safely tucked in, listening to the sounds of leaves rustling, a dog barking, cars on the road and imagining some sort of alien being, vaguely humanoid and luminous, creeping about in the garden, coming up to my window and standing out there, sending mental commands to me, glowing horribly...

One night, my upstairs neighbour Calvin and I were on the terrace when we saw a UFO. It was spherical and had a white glow, with traces of green around the edges and pink in the middle.

'What's that?' I asked Calvin, who was about 3 years older than me.

'It must be a UFO,' he replied in an awestruck voice.

We watched in excitement as it hovered for a while and then vanished.

My father's paper ran a small story about the sighting a few days later. I never saw a UFO again.

1 comment:

priya said...

uhm.. i never knew u had such a history,i realy liked "the sponge bath"and y there is a lot of dispute in ur area..were u born in 18th century or wht??