As children, we were taken to Bhadravathi every Diwali to celebrate Hiriyar Habba. It’s a festival to remember and honour the dead– in this case, my grandfather’s father and his father. We would leave Belgaum early in the morning and reach Bhadravathi by evening. All I knew about the place back then was that it’s a little after Shimoga and that there is a lovely little bridge at the entrance to the city. Year after year, almost decidedly, dad would point to the bridge and say ‘This is a Bridge. Under this are the rivers Tunga and Bhadra. That’s why the city is called Bhadravathi.’
But I have come to associate Bhadravathi with other things. Things like the smell of bhajjis being fried and the early evening throw ball matches. At the junction where we took right to get home was the steel factory. I still don’t know how and why my uncle chose to live in Bhadravathi. But I know he had a job over at the steel factory.
My favourite part about going home to Bhadravathi was the home itself. It was a pretty long house. Long is the aptest word I can think of because that’s what it was. It wasn’t big. It was stretched long. I could stand at the gate and peep into the veranda, all the way into the hall, the dining hall, and be able to see the choola in the kitchen. The kitchen was the darkest corner of the house. The bathroom was further away, in the back. The toilet wasn’t located inside the house. One had to walk around the house, behind the shed and the clothesline to find another small shed, which was the toilet.
A bucket full of water had to be filled from the small tank near the clothesline before going to the toilet. I grew rather fond of this little adventure until one time that I forgot to take a bucket of water and had to holler for help.
Once we had settled in, I would see mother only very rarely. She would disappear into the kitchen and I saw her only when the gang got tired of playing and one by one, we would make our way into the kitchen to steal alu bondas and eerulli bhajjis. We ran wild and mad, away from the screaming aunties to some tree or the occasional park. Mostly we locked ourselves up in a room, where we would settle down on a bed sheet and munch away till we were called for lunch.
Slowly, I don’t know how but the boys and girls would start fighting and this would always lead to a throw ball match. Dad would be on their side and occasionally, on ours. N and H were always good at throw ball so the girls didn’t have to worry. They were our pillars. N manned the back and put H and me in the front. They gave the boys a hard time. Sometimes the boys would win, but we won the last and the most important match.
If they won, we wouldn’t talk to them all evening. They would snigger first, laugh next and eventually somebody would cheer us up into talking to them once again. While lunch was a festive occasion, dinner was grand. A section of the children’s room would be cleared out to make room for the photographs of those deceased. One by one, the girls would be sent to bring in the food and boys were sent to bring fruits, flowers and incense. Older uncles would stand in a corner and debate brands of alcohol. ‘Not for us, for them’, was whispered every now and then. I don’t recall being stumped by this back then. It’s only now that this detail interests me. Alcohol and beedis were brought and kept in the middle of all that food. Nobody looked embarrassed and it continued to sit there, looking like a showpiece, all innocent.
When I asked once, I was told that it was to please the dead people, to make sure that everything they liked to eat and drink was given to them. After the pooja, we would all leave the house and wait outside for five minutes so the dead people could come, eat to their heart’s content and go.
Later in the night, we wouldn’t sleep. We would stay awake to talk. About what? Nobody cared. But we did.
On our way back to Belgaum, mom would tell us everything that happened in the kitchen. The funny bits would keep my dad chuckling for weeks. The funniest so far was my older aunt saying that the darkest man in the family was the younger aunt’s husband. The younger aunt didn’t pause for a moment before saying, ‘ya, your husband is one nandi-battalu-hoova no?’