It was after retirement — 10 years ago — that I started visiting my village. It happened to be close to the place where I settled, just one-and-a-half hours by road. My father, who lived with us during his last few years, would coax me to find some use for our ancestral home for the village community. It is lovingly called ‘Haveli’, for it was built way back in 1861.
On one of my initial visits, I was taken aback when I saw a group of elderly women sitting around the johad (village pond) on the ground, and an odd fitter one squatting on her heels. ‘How come you are sitting like that?’ I asked. ‘Aur sofa kahan se layen (where do we get a sofa from)?’ one of them remarked sarcastically. ‘Are there no benches around this pond?’ I enquired. ‘Tera ghana jee karai, tu liya dei (if you are so keen you get some),’ another one shot back teasingly.
Rural Haryanvis are quick-witted and ready with a spontaneous repartee. Somehow, I always thought of the right to ‘sit with dignity’ as an important one. As a student of a primary school in Ludhiana in the 1950s, we used to sit on the ground on taats (jute mats). It was when I got promoted to middle school that I sat on a bench for the first time. I felt elated and elevated. Surprisingly, the bench is a fairly recent invention. The first public benches were designed by French architect Gabriel Davioud in the 1850s. The iconic public benches of Paris are part of street furniture.
During the days when I headed a police training academy, I noticed that there was hardly any bench around. After stiff resistance from ustaads, who believed I was diluting the rigours of training, we placed benches outside the barracks of recruits to relax and sit with dignity during a few precious spare moments available to them. The benches were either wooden or made of wrought iron. They were expensive and wouldn’t last long. Later, some firm came out with reasonably priced and long-lasting orange cement benches.
I thought here was the chance to outsmart this group of women. ‘Come on, within a week you won’t be sitting like this,’ I said confidently. They wouldn’t believe me and ticked me off with another sarcastic remark.
I returned and searched for the firm and ordered two benches to be delivered in the village. It wasn’t a big amount. And here we were with two benches on the johad. When I went next time, I found the women sitting comfortably on the benches, chatting blithely. Greeting me, they exclaimed, ‘Tene Chandigarh bana diya (you have made it Chandigarh)!’
Later, the village sarpanch ordered many such benches to further spread the cheer.
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