Almost a century ago, my then eight-year old great grandfather accompanied his father on a journey across India’s breadth. They set off from the sweltering heat of Rajasthan, India, to the cool climes of the erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim. My forefathers were farmers who’d lived in a small hamlet and they were then on the lookout for greener pastures.
Travelling on foot, horses and bullock carts, it would take them almost a month to reach their destination!Being pukka Marwaris, they quickly set up a prosperous business, trading in clothes and food grains in the then sleepy village of Rangpo, just across the border from West Bengal.
What they had left behind in Rajasthan were agriculture fields, the women folk, children and also a sprawling haveli. This was done to first enable establishing a secure base at the new location.
Havelis are old palatial homes that were built to accommodate large joint families and most Marwari folks will trace their lineage to one of these magnificent edifices. While some families have been able to maintain their upkeep, many have fallen into disrepair and are gradually falling victim to the ravages of time. A fair number have also been converted into luxury hotels that attract well-heeled travelers from both India and overseas.
The stories have forever regaled us
As business prospects flourished in Sikkim, the family was soon called for and the grand old haveli was locked up for good. As children, my numerous cousins and I would often listen to dramatic tales in rapt attention. My great grandfather regaled us with these stories right up to the time he left for his heavenly abode at the age of 104. Several of the uncles and aunts also held their treasure troves of stories and especially about life in the haveli.
The stories have been vivid and what my imagination drew up was this structure with huge wooden doors befitting of a fort. The haveli contained about fifty rooms, and even secret passageways that led to buried gold under the clay ovens. There were tons of brass and copper utensils,I was told, and these would be regularly loaned out for village weddings. The few pictures I have chanced upon,showed period furniture across most rooms and older relatives also recounted spooky ghost sightings.
Our ancestral haveli was this aural wonderland for us. We would never tire of hearing the same stories being shared time and again.
No one would revisit the haveli in forty years
With the family shifting base to Sikkim, there were none to call this grand old place their home. In fact, no one from the extended family was to revisit the haveli for forty years after my great grandfather last locked it up. In the years to come, a return visit to the old home could just not be accommodated, what with my grandfather becoming a name to reckon with in Sikkim. He was successful in building a formidable reputation for himself – both as a businessman and as a noted philanthropist.
The devastating floods of 1968 were a defining moment for dadaji. The natural disaster had wreaked havoc and the crucial road link between Sikkim and Siliguri in West Bengal had been severed. Engineers estimated that it would be well over a month before road connectivity could be restored. During this moment of crisis, dadaji fed his entire village,and all without seeking any repayment in monetary terms or otherwise. In recognition of these efforts, he received the highest civilian award – the Lhaksam Shabdek Badhar Medal. This was conferred upon him by His Majesty, the Chogyal.
An uncle retraced the family’s steps
Forty years later, an uncle retraced the family’s steps and went on a nostalgic trip to the old haveli. Most treasured possessions had been lost to pilferage and decay.What remains are fond memories of a different era and even these will be lost to time if we do not record these stories for current and future generations to also cherish. The wistful expressions worn on their faces, and the longing in the eyes of the very few surviving family seniors who once lived there,is something I cannot even begin to describe in words.
Being the fifth generation of my family since relocating to Sikkim, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like. “What if my ancestors hadn’t made that fateful journey across the breadth of the country -establishing base in what was then a remote Himalayan kingdom?”
A visit is definitely on the wish list
I wish I was part of that original journey so that I too could imbibe—even if only a little-the resolve and courage my ancestors seemed to have in abundance. I also wonder, “What if even I have to embark on one such landmark journey that will change the lives of generations to come?”
I am in awe of these intrepid gentlemen who staked everything to ensure their children a brighter future.The haveli still stands in all its bygone glory and one day, I will surely retrace my great-great-grandfather’s steps. While I am at it, I will possibly also try my luck at unearthing some of the buried treasures there.