પ્રકરણ 1ની શરૂઆત | Beginning of Chapter 1

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Chapter 1: On the Banks of the Machhu River

The sun rose above a hazy horizon to reveal that the river remained completely dry. It was late July. The monsoon still had not reached Gujarat, but life in Morbi went on.

A steady stream of traffic swerved, honked, and shouted its way into downtown on the Buffalo Bridge—a grand masonry structure whose arches spanned a quarter of a mile across the empty Machhu riverbed. Two bronze bulls, imported from Italy at great expense by Morbi’s king nearly a century before, surveyed the traffic from their pedestals near the center of the bridge. Those who could afford to take their eyes off the road—passengers in auto-rickshaws, schoolboys balancing on the racks of bicycles, wives clutching children while riding behind their husbands on overloaded mopeds—beheld a panorama of grand architecture, the legacy of centuries of prosperous royal rule.

On the Machhu’s eastern shore, south of the Buffalo Bridge, a tower rose up from a gleaming, white marble palace, the former residence of Morbi’s royal family. Across the dry riverbed, the Machhu’s steep western bank tapered into a vertical masonry wall. Dotted with an intricate pattern of balconies and large windows, the wall rose up five stories into the old royal court.

Downstream, the ornate towers and turrets of the Mani Mandir complex loomed over traffic entering downtown via the bridge. Built at the turn of the century by King Vaghji Jadeja after the death of his beloved concubine Manibai, the Mani Mandir consisted of a central temple surrounded on all four sides by a majestic, two-story castle. Dazzling carvings adorned every arch, pillar, and banister in the immense, red sandstone structure. Surrounded by lush green trees, the building stood, regal and serene, at the entrance to an otherwise frenetic downtown.

Morbi had expanded greatly in recent decades. Its inhabitants now numbered more than sixty thousand, and its choked avenues could barely accommodate the traffic flowing off the Buffalo Bridge. Long-horned buffalo with humped backs sat in the middle of the road, paying little heed to the pandemonium around them. Schoolgirls in colorful uniforms darted across lanes, giggling and clutching their books. Auto-rickshaw drivers, craving a morning dose of sugar and tobacco, swerved over to stop in front of their favorite paan shops. Their idling vehicles puttered as they approached the small storefront windows, exchanged pleasantries with the shopkeepers, and placed their orders.

Paan shops were ubiquitous in Morbi. Though little more than a brightly painted cabin located just north of the main market, Pratapbhai Adroja’s paan shop was one of the most popular. The counter at Bhoot Tambool (Ghost Paan) directly faced the street, and on this particular morning, the line outside the window snaked well down the block. The space behind the counter was cramped, leaving just enough room for Adroja’s stool. Bags of chips, peanuts, and various Indian snacks lined the walls. A small stack of newspapers sat for sale. Candy and fruit also competed for customers’ attention in the limited counter space.

In spite of the variegated offerings, most visitors came to the shop for the paan. Sitting on the counter in front of Adroja, a small set of wooden drawers held a rich assortment of ingredients: betel nut, fennel seeds, fruit preserves, shaved coconut, tobacco, and spices. As each new customer approached the window, Adroja spread a betel leaf on his cutting board and set to work, meticulously laying down pinches of every ingredient requested. When finished, he would fold the leaf just so, securing it with a toothpick and passing it into an eagerly outstretched hand. The customer would tuck the leaf between his gum and his cheek, sucking on the sweet blend of juices that turned saliva bright red. Prosperity as a paan merchant rested on the ability to achieve a perfect balance among diverse ingredients, and Adroja’s workmanship always seemed just right.

At the same time, the small man’s constant smile, high-spirited banter, and quirky sense of humor did much to endear him to his customers. In Ghost Paan’s scant free space, Adroja kept a sizable personal collection of ghost and goblin likenesses. The shop’s hand-painted sign sported two ghoulish skeletons, and stylized skulls and bones studded the awning’s metal frame. Sometimes, a customer would ask Adroja about his shop’s unusual theme. The response, delivered in a nasal squeak, never varied: “I love ghosts!” When his interlocutors seemed dissatisfied with the explanation, Adroja simply laughed.

Ghost Paan demanded long hours, but the lively rhythm of business made the time pass quickly. Selling paan entailed a constant stream of social chatter coupled with careful attention to craft and ingredients. Many might find the work exasperating, but Adroja always seemed at peace amid the hubbub.

Adroja was in good spirits when he closed the shop that evening, pulling the metal grate down over the narrow entrance and securing the lock. It was only a short walk to his house in Mahendrapara (the Mahendra Quarter), where his son, his wife, and a hearty meal of lentils, rice, vegetables, and buttered flatbread awaited. Adroja strode jauntily down Morbi’s wide commercial avenues. The shops on either side offered a dazzling array of goods. Every night, Adroja passed storefronts displaying pots and pans, electric water pumps, school supplies, jewelry, colorfully patterned cloth, sacks of grain, radios, and spreads of berries and guava. Other shopkeepers would wave at Adroja as they, too, closed up for the night.

Walking through the immaculately swept streets, which stood in sharp contrast to refuse-strewn public roads all over India, Adroja could clearly see why administrators and citizens alike had long regarded Morbi as a “model city.” There were, of course, the grand monuments of the Jadeja dynasty, to which the city owed its moniker—“The Paris of Saurashtra.” More important, Morbi possessed a physical and social infrastructure that placed it first among its peers. Power lines supplied houses in even the poorest neighborhoods with reliable electricity. An excellent system of sewers kept waste out of the streets, preventing the water-borne epidemics that plagued many other cities. Since the turn of the century, telephone lines had extended from downtown to even the farthest-flung villages in the area. With time, Morbi had developed an extensive network of free grade schools, an acclaimed high school, and several well-regarded colleges.

Even more important than infrastructure or institutions, however, were the people who populated Morbi. Adroja perceived a distinctive vigor and confident spirit in his customers. Especially of late, he had noticed a discernable optimism in the air. New factories were opening on the city’s outskirts at a breathtaking clip, and money was flowing freely.

As Adroja rounded the last bend toward home, he reached up to pat the wad of rupees in his breast pocket, the product of a long day’s work. It was a good time to be a shopkeeper in Morbi.