Three generations of history have now settled on the accumulating layers of Chandigarh time. And among those who formed part of the many nascent narratives of the city were three women. They were not old but had seemed so to me then. Not anymore though, since life is a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives.
When I look back at them, I see three wonderful women in their mid-70s and early-80s: lively, laughing and irreverent. Usha Lall, the left-leaning iconoclast who conspiratorially told me — giggling gleefully all the while, flashing white teeth that were entirely her own — that she was happy to have arrived at a point in her life when skirts or pants were all one to her. She herself had taken to wearing easy-to-button duster coats over her salwars and to hell with fashion.
There was Champa Mangatrai, the soulful humanist who had taught English literature at the Government College for Women and who still took time out to match her earrings with her sari every morning. Sitting on the sideboard, in her dining room, was a photograph of her on a London street with her skirt billowing in the breeze. It was a glamour that had not faded in those 60 years.
And Piloo Rudra, the warden at the YWCA with a faithful, black and white cocker spaniel called Roger, who followed her everywhere she went. She had a mop of curly hair that made her look more like an impish schoolboy rather than a stern keeper of hostel rules.
They got together every other day over a cup of tea, a drink or a meal. They fondly referred to me as their ‘mundoo’ and I was happy to fetch and carry for them. And then one day my job detail required me to provide a man. I can hear indrawn breaths of the reader, but the threesome only wanted to go out to have a meal at the rehri market in Sector 11 and wanted an escort!
They imagined the rehri market to be a wild, jostling, raucous place where three women would be an easy pushover. But they had heard that the cavernous utensils sitting atop a coal fire offered hot, gurgling dal, luminous with oil vegetables, and straight from the tandoor, roti. My husband, then a friend, was the tough man on a tough job that day.
The outing was a success on a sunny winter afternoon under a shabby, khaki awning. It was discovered that the rehri market was, after all, not a dangerous place and that there were no trolls that lurked in the corners. And it emboldened the venturesome three to go further afield. They began to frequent a dhaba stall for tea in Sector 17, arriving there in Champa Mangatrai’s brown Maruti (CH 4321).
Usha and Champa are no more, the world a lesser place for it. And Piloo, I lost contact with when she left town. But then the dhabas too are a dying species. The rehri markets have been replaced by pucca, box-like structures and the traditional market place has been subsumed by the malls. However, fortunately for us, there is still space for, and no substitute for, the neighbourhood corner store.