Returning to the Roots: A Slice of Life in Picture-perfect Chandigarh

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Chandigarh was Nehru’s vision for a replacement for Lahore as the capital of the newly halved Punjab after partition. It is was carved out by joining 50 villages. It has the unique status of being the capital of two states, Punjab and Haryana. It belongs to neither but is a union territory, governed by the union . Designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, it is known as one of the perfect cities of the world in terms of architecture, growth and modernisation. Its symbol is the open hand monument. The Chandigarh Capitol Complex is recognised by UNESCO as world heritage. The Leisure Valley is an eight km long, linear and endless green belt straddling the city from north to south like a green haired godmother. Lily dwells on the last posting in their hometown that was akin to returning to the roots, in the final edition of the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Chandigarh was the last stop on our marathon posting run all over the country. It was a considerate gesture by the army that it tried to accommodate the officer’s family by allowing a ‘home posting’. It helped one resettle and dig into one’s roots again. Besides being my hometown, Chandigarh is one of the prettiest cities in and aptly called The City Beautiful. The cantonment is Chandimandir, named after the historic dedicated to goddess Chandi, who is the warrior avatar of goddess Durga. The cantonment was built, in 1960, and is perched in the foothills of the Shivalik ranges of the Himalayas.

There are a lot of low rolling hills with dry thorny forests mostly of acacia (kikkarkikkar) and Ziziphus berry bushes. It has a picturesque golf course and is teeming with wildlife. I often woke up to the sounds of peacocks’ call of ‘piaon-piaon’, while draping themselves in the dense forest around our living areas. Deer are easy to spot as are various wildfowl. Many exotic birds fly around cheerfully. Music is piped around the walking paths. The sylvan surroundings of cantonments spoil one for a lifetime. Noise and pollution distress me like nothing else does. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity life gave me to live in the proverbial lap of nature.

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Chandigarh was Nehru’s vision for a replacement for Lahore as the capital of the newly halved Punjab after partition. It is was carved out by joining 50 villages. It has the unique status of being the capital of two states, Punjab and Haryana. It belongs to neither but is a union territory, governed by the union government. Designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, it is known as one of the perfect cities of the world in terms of architecture, cultural growth and modernisation. Its symbol is the open hand monument. The Chandigarh Capitol Complex is recognised by UNESCO as world heritage with the words, “The architectural work of Le Corbusier an outstanding contribution to the Modern movement.” The stately buildings of the high court, secretariat and town hall comprise this complex along with the open hand, geometric hill, martyrs memorial and tower of shadow.

The systematic division of the city into sectors, each with its own shopping area and green lungs allowed one to venture on the identically parallel roads, crisscrossing the length and breadth with precision. The Leisure Valley is an eight km long, linear and endless green belt straddling the city from north to south like a green haired godmother. There are many theme parks and gardens like the bougainvillaea and walking trails going through it. The internationally lauded Zakir Rose garden has an unbelievable 825 varieties of roses and a staggering 32,500 of various medicinal plants and trees. A morning walk in the spring through the garden is embedded in my mind. Those days there were hardly any vehicles on the streets and walking was a pleasure. I am talking about the days when the city was teased as the “home of white beards and green hedges.” Well, it still is a paradise for retired folks, though it now has the highest per capita income in the country. It still has the unbelievable green cover canopy of yore along with being the first smoke-free city of India.

The most exhilarating part of being a Chandigarhian is the wealth of trees that are planted along its broad avenues. As one drives along the north facing roads with the enchanting vistas of the blue-green hills soothing the eyes, one can go through a veritable green tunnel of evergreen foliage bearing trees. The Pilkhan and Kusum are remarkable. The golden showers of Amaltas bring out the poet in me. Cascading droplets of yellow lighting up the roads are show stoppers, to put it mildly. The pink cassia gives a soft aura to the sector it adorns. There is a time in the year where the lavender lace of the Jacaranda coyly smiles through the windscreen of your car. The Kachnars dotted along the leisure valley with their pink and mauve orchid-like flowers are delicate and blissful in their own splendour. My early memories are of the citrus smelling leaves of the tall and stately eucalyptus and the huge  of the Seemul tree outside my school Carmel Convent, in Sector 9. The red silk cotton tree is what we called it. A magnificent specimen of nature. The big opened out from gigantic buds and the sepals were lined with a silky velvet. I loved walking home to Sector 8 with a few in my arms. The flame of the forest or Palash can still be spotted in the forests around. Their amber coloured flowers on dark almost leafless trees are a sight to behold. Even the cycling paths have stately Chakrasia trees along the Jan Marg. An Arcadian utopia if at all there ever is amidst the fume spouting and concrete structures of today’s cities.

The city has a haven of serenity in its picturesque Sukhna Lake. It is a 3km artificial fed lake, which is a popular place to saunter in along the placid waters created by damming the Sukhna Choe, a seasonal stream trickling down from the Shivaliks. I have fond memories of going for picnics in summer and immersing watermelons and mangoes in the cool waters before devouring them. Many a has blossomed along its shores and it was a favourite rendezvous. It is a festive and tourist-like destination now, with a garden of silence too.

The Sukhna Lake is home to many migratory birds in the winter. There is much cackling of geese and waterfowl as Siberian winged visitors come and capture the water surface and the reeds surrounding it. The Nek Chand Rock garden close by is a wondrous place which is on the must see the list of visitors. It has many sculptures made out of waste materials from discarded forks, handle bars, porcelain, sanitary ware, marbles, metal wires, glass bangles and auto parts. The government museum and art gallery came into being due to the splitting of museum heirlooms in Lahore when the partition of the country took place. Sixty percent of the relics remained in Lahore but most of the Gandhara sculptures came to India along with Mughal and Pahari School of Paintings.

The Panjab owes its roots to the Punjab in Lahore when the state was one. The name acquired an ‘a’ instead of a ‘u’ to distinguish it from the one in West Punjab. The red sandstone buildings house the temple of learning, which is ranked as one of the top in the country. The Gandhi Bhawan is an auditorium hall in the middle of a water body. The student centre is the most loved building with a cafeteria with panoramic views. This is the place where guffaws echo and back-slapping bonhomie sizzles the tables. Many rounds of samosas, dosas and coffee came in quick succession. Thrills came in the form of play acting friends fooling the friendly waiters by saying, “Call the police! We don’t have money to pay the bills!” The horrifying ceremonial ordering of hot coffee as it was cheaper and then asking for free ice cubes to add it to our cups and pretend that it was cold coffee that we were drinking.

The Chinese food wolfed down at Ginza in the university shopping centre. All this came hurtling back to my mind as I drove past the department after almost 30 years! The political games of gun-toting student leaders. The handsome Sikh boys in their parrot and saffron turbans – a different style for each district that they hailed from! The coy girls from the rural areas converting to jeans-clad fashionistas after a few days in the cosmopolitan air of Chandigarh , all came rushing back . The tradition of going uphill to the sombre hill stations of Morni, Kasauli, Dagshai for a weekend drive on two wheelers. The hot mutton and pork pickle at Dhalli and the yummy chaat and papri that one could lick off the leaf that it was served on in Sector 23.

The unique culture of dressing up in the evening and going bird watching or more recently boy watching in ones swanky four wheelers is called the Geri Route and is missed wherever Chandigarhians live the world over. It is the leisurely drive from the inner markets of Sector 8, 9, 10 and 11 with suggestive music blaring from the music systems. An occasional filmy remark might also do the rounds from designer mouths and perfumed lasses. We have come a long way from the paraandis (hair extensions of colourful silken tassels) and patiala salwars can only be spied at family weddings.

This posting was close to my heart for obvious reasons. I could spend more time with my aging parents and settle into my first own house in my lifetime. The only tragic part was the untimely demise of my 23-year- old son during the fag end of my life as a Fauji wife in Chandigarh.

Well, God has his own plans. Let me sign off by asking in Chandigarh lingo “Kiddaan bai?”

©Lily Swarn

Photos from the internet.

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily has published English poems in various anthologies. She was awarded Reuel international prize for poetry 2016 and Global Icon Of Peace And Virtuoso Award. A postgraduate in English from Punjab University, she was awarded a gold medal for best all-round student and academics. She edited her college magazine and wrote middles for newspapers. Poetry blossomed after her young son's sudden demise. She writes in Hindi and English. Hailing from a defence family, she is settled in Chandigarh.
Lily Swarn
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