Farming out Nomenclature
For most people, it’s just an acronym. For others, it’s home. You say “Mhow” and the response from most quarters is quick: “Military Headquarters of War.” The better informed might ask: “Isn’t that the birthplace of Bhimrao Ambedkar?” I have been going to Mhow since 1992—the year my brother and sister-in-law built a home there. When I tell people about my brother in Mhow, I keep the answer to the next question, “Is he in the army?”, ready. No, Rajeev is not in the army, he works with the thousands of farmers who grow cotton in Indore’s Khargone district. For most faujis, who come to Mhow for all kinds of courses—this includes officers for junior and senior commands—the ‘other’, civilian Mhow may or may not register. Ambedkar’s (born on April 14, 1891) birthplace has not just seen violence during the 1857 revolt, it has been witness to a major legal battle between the army and civilian residents, each desperate to maintain the sanctity of their property rights. I know of at least one instance where a retired fauji was denied access to his own home and had to use a long, roundabout route instead. And I have also seen with my own eyes the ‘uglification’ of a once sleepy town with sloping tiled-roof houses. The child Ambedkar would have seen a lively, albeit British, cantonment with steam engines pulling metre-gauge coaches into Mhow railway station from Khandwa and Ratlam. He has been spared having to witness Mhow’s spanking new railway station building, unlikely to have any real competition in being classified the town’s most aesthetically-displeasing building. The Ambedkar family left for Maharashtra soon after his birth, but the man who never hesitated to declare his Mahar caste has today a white-marble stupa dedicated to him inside the Mhow cantonment.
Swords, Sandals, Popcorn
The Orpheum cinema on Post Office Road is no longer operational. Locked up and deserted. My friend Ravi, whose father set up a medical practice in Mhow back in 1940, remembers clearly how people from Indore would come to watch English films like Ben Hur in Orpheum. In the good old days, it had a bar and a box behind the balcony, which had some eminently comfortable sofas. Ravi, who has had a front row seat to the twists and turns in Mhow, also remembers that the Orpheum cooks produced an excellent keema samosa. How the order of things has changed. Today, Mhowvadis go to the many cineplexes in Indore for their movie fix and eat the same popcorn that the rest of India has embraced. The small single theatre is no more. The Orpheum has become a living memorial to the past. Through my brother, I met Zal, whose great great grandfather, Cowasji C. Bharucha, purchased the house in which Zal and his family live together with their Great Dane, around 1885. It has got to be one of the most striking houses that I have seen, with a lovely wooden staircase taking you from ground to first floor. Old photographs add to the heritage quality that every inch of the house possesses. Zal’s is one of the old Parsee families of Mhow. His grandfather E.C. Cowasji set up an oil-fired power generating unit for the entire cantonment back in 1928.
Life in the Slow Lane
Mhow, for me, is the ultimate retreat. Life slows down at once when you reach Mhow after a 50-55-minute car ride from Indore, which today boasts of multiple airline connections from Delhi and Mumbai. In the 1990s, it was almost impossible to get even a phone connection (the number was in four digits) unless you had the right “approach”. Twenty years ago, there was virtually no television available to watch, barring the terrestrial channels. Today, you can watch Usain Bolt winning a 100-metre dash with your Tata Sky dish pointing at the open skies while sipping your vodka-tonic. From buying a radio (try getting one in Delhi today) to getting a bandi tailored by Balchand tailors (and then altered) or buying fish with my brother, the Mhow bazaar has all the pleasures that the malls of Gurgaon and Delhi simply don’t possess. I have even spoken with the owner of a motorcycle repair shop about acquiring an old Enfield bike, but have not had the courage to see the deal through. My point is that the quality of life in small-town Mhow is much better than in mega-Dilli with all the modern comforts thrown in. And, if the tranquil life of Mhow bores you, there are options. You can go for a swim in the Narmada, picnic at Berchcha, Choral, Jam Darwaza or Patalpani or go and see the temples in Maheshwar. The more ambitious can even motor down to see the fort at Mandu.
Heavy rains allowed several massive kaddus, which can weigh up to 20 kilos, to crop into my brother’s garden. The kuan, too, was in abundance. Sadly, no such luck this year.
Till recently the editor of BBC Hindi, Amit Baruah is the author of Dateline Islamabad; E-mail your diarist: abaruah AT gmail.com