Tale of a vegetable seller who preserved people’s hundred-year old memories in a museum
British Tehsil, Kot Mohalla, Sonipat.
Kishori Lal unlocks the heavy metal gate to an old red-bricked building. The rusted bars of the gate and the creek of metal latch against the cemented pathway lead to an unlikely interior—a museum of oral history and material memory.
Kishori Lal who was the gate-keeper of the building until then is quick to assume the role of a guide. The Swarnaprastha Museum as it is called, gets its name after the ancient name of Sonipat as described in the Mahabharata. Lal complains how successive generations have ignored the historic importance of the city and gets back to explaining how the museum got its name. Sonipat was among the five villages asked by Krishna for the Pandavas described in the text as Paniprastha(now Panipat), Swarnaprastha(Sonipat), Vrikshprastha (Bagpat), Indraprastha (Delhi) and Tilaprastha(Tilpat).
At the entrance of the museum are three rooms curated with pictures and belongings of more than 300 army personnel who belonged to Sonipat. Kishori starts revealing slowly. As he unlocks the fourth room, he talks about the articles he has contributed to the museum. He proudly picks up a metal elephant and a ‘gola’. Kishori’s possessions have been passed on to him through five generations. The gola is a 9.5 kg musket ball preserved by his forefathers and the metal elephant, another 5.5 kg musket ball that was melted and re-casted by Kishori’s grandfather. “Mere baap- dada sab army main the. Hawaldar ke rank se fir upar badhe. Mera bhai aur main dono army main nahi gaye. Ab lagta hai humne desh ke liye kiya hi kya,” Kishori says with a sigh. (All my forefathers were in the army. They rose up from the rank of a hawaldar. Both, my brother and I did not get inducted. What have I done for this country?)
A plumber seasonally and a vegetable seller, Kishori says he often wondered about this old structure which had become the unofficial dumping ground. “Even the Municipal Corporation trucks started dumping here. It has been there for so long and no one ever questioned.” Until one day he found a very old cinema projector dumped there. Excited, he called for a rickshaw to take the projector home. This event triggered the idea to collate material memory from the British Tehsil area, one of the oldest in Sonipat.
"Why would the people lend their precious belongings to a vegetable vendor. There was no trust between us"
While taking his vegetable cart across the streets, he would find an opportunity to strike a conversation. People were hesitant to part with the belongings that had passed down several generations. “Ek sabzi waale ko koi apna keemati samaan kyu dega? Logon main vishwas nahi tha” (Why would the people lend their precious belongings to a vegetable vendor. There was no trust between us). Sitting with his legs akimbo and a hand on his forehead, Kishori recalled what he called the ghor bura din (a very bad day). He came back home to his angry wife, Meenakshi who called him a chor (thief). Three ladies and a man from the locality had visited Kishori’s house in the afternoon. What followed was a series of accusations by the neighbours. The women told his wife that he was trying to acquire information about their pushtaini samaan and were apprehensive of him trying to steal and sell it. He decided to go to their house, apologise and explain his intent. Since 2005 Kishori has visited more than 200 families in Sonipat asking them to share their belongings. In 2009, the Society for the Development and Beautification of Sonipat (SDBS) recognised his effort with the help of a local journalist. They came up with a proposal for renovating the old structure.
“Sab se pehle maine apna gola aur haathi diya,” says Kishori. (I was the first one to contribute my articles to the museum.) And then the people followed.
Kishori has now found redemption in contributing to the museum and being its caretaker.
The thirteen-room museum hosts more than 300 articles gathered from the locals in Sonipat who came together to preserve local culture and history of the city. In the heart of Sonipat is this British tehsil inhabited by the descendants of soldiers who fought in the British Army. Items as old as 100 years, gharas, chakki, radio sets, type-writers, cameras, agricultural equipment, brass mementos, watches are all a part of this collection. The metal elephant and the musket ball, Kishori says, “signifies that our family is the pehredaar, the protector of the people.”
The museum documents material memory and gives voice to the locals who have long felt that their significance in history has been neglected. Documenting oral history does not only preserve the social fabric of the space but also preserves an ancient knowledge system. Rajiv Khatri, a local journalist said, “Sonipat has had equal role to play in shaping of history as Panipat. People only go by what they read widely. So everyone knows about the battle of Panipat but even the locals would not know that Ibrahim Lodi built the tomb for Khwaja Khizr in this city. It is a beautiful city.” The sole purpose of this museum is to make people realise how rich their history has been. “Dilli ke itna paas hai, is jagah main koi to baat hogi hi,” Kishori says with a broad smile. (This place is so close to Delhi, it will obviously be a significant place.)