Chowk, the harbinger of news

Satish K Sharma

The 250 sq-ft courtyard of my ancestors’ stone-and-mortar house at our village in Rajasthan was simply known as ‘chowk’. It was central to the life of my grandfather’s joint family. It had a roof with a 6’x 6’ parapet-less opening to the sky.

Events like marital rites, pujas, kathas and baithaks (sittings) were held there. Sometimes, it would also become a Kurukshetra for bitter verbal duels between brothers (my uncles). And then, when the tempers had cooled, the scene would change to Ram-Bharat milan — the same brothers would shed tears of contrition on each other’s shoulder. I enjoyed all the drama with awe and excitement as a child.

Chowk was also the place to break news, for the soundwaves of anything announced there travelled easily to all nooks and crannies of the house, especially the upper quarters, where women and children spent most of their time.

It was at the chowk that the beedi-smoking family midwife had announced the dozen or so childbirths of two generations in the family. And, it was from there that I first heard of death — of a widowed old aunt — announced by my grandfather with resignation.

One hot June evening of 1964, an uncle returned from a trip to a nearby town and announced from the chowk, ‘Lal Bahadur Shastri is India’s new Prime Minister.’

‘Lal Bahadur who?’ came a voice from the upper quarters. The poser echoed the surprise of the common Indians for whom the pantheon of Indian leaders, then, began with Gandhi and ended at Nehru.

Then, one day during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, a telegram read aloud at the chowk broke the shattering news that my second uncle, a soldier, had gone missing-in-action. It drew a plaintive wail from my grandmother. A week of anxiety followed in which she left no Gods un-petitioned to save her son. Finally, the Gods relented and the uncle was traced in one piece. After the war, he came home on leave. Stepping into the chowk, he announced, ‘Ma, I have returned.’ Children in the upper quarters rushed to the opening in the chowk roof to look at the war hero below. In the melee, a cousin — all of three — lost her balance and fell through the opening. Fortunately, my uncle who was standing right below caught her in his arms.

Well, the family had survived two mishaps in quick succession. A thanksgiving feast to the village deity was, therefore, called for and duly offered. However, not before Dadi had a grill of steel bars installed over the gap in the roof.

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