In the bazaar of Haridwar, off a side street, up an alley, past a narrow gutter of dubious-looking water, across a tiny square that contains a fossil of a temple, and up a steep, narrow flight of stairs, works a man whose business it is to record the births, deaths, unions and other happenings of interest of a variety of families.
Some 300 years ago, an ancestor of a former in-law came to an ancestor of this man, called a Purohit pandit, and began the story of the family Bansal. It has been maintained since on narrow paper sheets bound with cord at the top and folded into a roll about a foot in diameter, covered in a checked fabric and stored with others like it in a dark closet. Three hundred relatives employ the services of the pandit.
Our particular branch of the family dropped by at about 9 at night to duly note the Vancouver birth of a family member. The pandit’s man received us in a modest room with one corner edged in cushions, which served as an office. An ancient fellow in a turban was asleep on the floor under a blanket; he looked comfortable. A small temple punctuated the wall.
The pandit sat, the family record was fetched through reference to ancient family name and geographical beginnings. The birth was inscribed with a fine quill pen which the pandit dipped into an ink pot, first drawing his own lines, then making his note in minute Hindi characters. The names of the witnesses (us) were duly noted and we all signed. The paper was smooth.
In 300 years, much may have been forgotten, but the book is proof that much has also been remembered. Over nine generations, the book’s Hindi handwriting has changed from father pandit to son pandit; incredibly, even the earliest entries haven’t faded. But as we filed down the narrow stairs, it was hard to imagine the tradition staying alive. The task of reporting births, deaths and unions will fall to the children of all the families, in India and scattered elsewhere, the ones now incessantly on their cell phones and gathered around the X-Box, forging a new country. They’ll determine the fate of the pandit, the quill, the black ink and remembrance of things past in India.
story © Dianna Carr images © Francis Tremblay