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What goes, and what goes not

There’s tradition, of course, and then there are moments you want to question it

Tanu Dogra Published 26.02.23, 02:49 AM

Tanu Dogra

That January morning Haridwar did not feel cold. But that could be because in my head I was still stuck inside the coldest room that I had ever been to in my life. I remember my father — he passed away recently after a spirited battle with the emperor of maladies — inside the hospital mortuary, a place too cold for life and for the living. I had, as the primary caregiver, been required to spend a few moments in that room to sign some papers. Days later, standing under Haridwar’s grey skies by a gushing river, with the melody of aarti and chants in my ear, I feared that no matter how far I travelled — be it to Haridwar or someplace else — I would never be able to leave that cold room.

Minutes later, I realised that I was in Haridwar to enter another room: this one, I had been assured, would help me trace my footsteps back to other times and places. For this was one of Haridwar’s famed genealogy record rooms.


My pahari family is steeped in tradition. But my father, I would like to believe, had struck a cheeky deal with the hallowed Dos and Don’ts club. He did not fight the stern lines that had been passed down the generations. But he let me redraw quite a few of them. He had wished — whispered — during the last stretch of his illness for a traditional farewell; so here I was — broken and defiant at the same time — playing a game of poker with tradition and its gatekeepers — all of them male — for the sake of the man I love the most.

On reaching Haridwar, we had been advised to meet a pundit. His premises were spartan. The outer courtyard had a room with windows looking out to the river. I spotted a wall painted in blue, the colour of grief. Soon, colour gave way to smell — a musty aroma that is the signature of ancient rooms. A door opened to a small path which, in turn, led me to the sacred Chamber of Genealogy.

As my eyes adjusted themselves to the muted, dusty light, I spotted an old almirah and a calendar. The floor was covered with mattresses and cushions, their garishness waging a futile battle to brighten the innards of the chamber. What caught my eye was the content on the stacks of shelves on the wall. Each shelf was bursting with bahikhatas, the supposedly infallible indexes of lineage. The khatas, as far as I could make out, were made of cloth or leather and bound with a thick white thread so that the scrolls were neatly tied in a cylindrical shape. The ledgers, it is said, contain entire histories of the clans of men and women who have passed on as well as fragments of geography which, like the departed, remain out of reach. Hamirpur in Himachal Pradesh, from where I draw my roots, must have been there on the scrolls.

When the pundit opened the bahikhata meant for my family, I examined its calligraphic style. Nearly every page was a scrawl of almost illegible names and dates; an army of Hindi letters leaving a genealogical trail. Yet, like all histories, this genealogy, too, had its gaps. For instance, the pundit only enquired about and then took down the names of the male members of my family. My grandfather, his sons and their sons were thus accounted for but not the names of the daughters.

When I asked him if my name was going to appear in the record book as I was the daughter of the deceased, it was met with a moment of telling silence. None spoke, not even the pundit. All I could hear was the river.

And it was then that I demanded — firmly at first and then insolently — for the inclusion of my name on the register. My relatives were shocked; my brother, in a moment of brief eye contact, pleaded to choose my battles. But I would have none of it. I stood alone but unyielding. After a heated discussion, the pundit made a concession: my name was added to a secondary section that recorded the names of visiting members of the clan.

I stepped out into what was now a bright day. The river glistened in the sun and the peal of bells sounded merrier. I had not demolished those inviolable lines; merely tweaked their alignment. I am, after all, my father’s daughter.

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