I want to go back to when I was Seven. Seven was before I saw the first death of a loved one. And then they started coming in regular intervals. The first dog, grandfather, other dogs, the aching void in the pit of the stomach I had grown to recognize so well, except that when it sucker-punched us, really hit us, we still were unprepared. Seven was before real heartbreak, it was just seven. Guavas plucked from trees and finished even before getting off the trees, mosquito bites and splinters, bikes and bad games of carom where my brothers always cheated. Tangled hair, sunburnt shoulders, coming home just a bit late and sneaking through the back door. The fights with brothers and then sobbing into the pillow in inarticulate fury, wishing them dead at times. And when that happened, the gnawing sense of guilt and raw pain which stayed and became achingly familiar. The detritus of living.
Memories of childhood are the dreams, really, which stay with you after you wake up. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to take one single childhood memory and blow it up into a bubble and then live inside it forever? So much of our early gladness vanishes utterly from our memory: we can never recall the joy with which we laid our heads on our mother’s bosom or rode on our father’s back in childhood. Never quite remember exactly how it felt to go to all the workshops/mines with Baba to eat the prashad from the Vishwakarma Pujas, – I remember it felt nice and I felt proud that people gave us the extra attention, bhav, because we were our dad’s children. In those nearly feudalistic times even in government service, who you were, mattered a lot. My parents always taught us so we would not imbibe them, and we didn’t, thankfully, but we could recognize them. And then one-day, that very pride turned into embarrassment, – we would not be caught dead within miles of those Pujas and the fawning men and their greasy- handed hospitality. Doubtless that joy is wrought up into our nature, as the sunlight of long-past mornings is wrought up in the soft mellowness of the mangoes, but it is gone forever from our imagination, and we can only believe in the joy of childhood, never quite remembering minute details, or even details of feelings.
I am from the generation which had seen those things called radiograms. The one my dad had was quite brilliant, and one day when I am rich and have a large house, I am going to bring it from my ancestral home and keep it. It had an 8-record record changer, the stylus does its zigzag positioning and goes and hits the pile of records and one of them falls. That act done, the stylus then went and planted itself on the exact position it needed to, and whoa, you heard music! ‘De Dol dol dol tol paal tol’, ‘Aye mere watan ke logo’,- the music that came from these three circular shapes in the cloth-bound rectangular part which formed the bottom of the contraption- enthralled us. At the centre on top is the radio, which one could open out like an accordion or drawer. On the other end of this complicated furniture is the place you kept your vinyl records (I think it’s posher to call them that – I notice my son cackles rudely every time I ask him to tape a song for me, so I am playing safe here). I would curl up near one of those circular cloth-lined parts, and listen to song after song after song in a crazy loop – decades before iPod shuffle came into being. While my brothers and my uncles played and cheated on in their card or carom games. Music is the one thing we all have inside. Not all of us can sing expertly, still less play any instrument, but we all can sing along and clap or tap our feet. Neel, my son, started banging on his rocker, keeping time when he was 4 months old, bouncing up and down in time to some, any, music. My experience of hearing tunes from childhood and having those melodies evoke a memory or feeling is very acute. Hemanta, my uncles and their music systems; my dad humming or playing his guitar like a professional. Except that the guitar would stand in a corner of his toilet, and almost the only time he got to play was in the mornings, before he went to work. And then, when we were in high school, he started learning it formally from a teacher at least 15 years his junior, and his co-student was dear little Binny, who, sleepy (sometimes even in his sleeping suit), would come over, his guitar bigger than his body. Yes, it is the music, the music we hear in our early years that tend to stay with us all our lives. I can find no logical – definitely no musical – reason why I remember a song called “Last Bus Home” and all the lyrics even now. It was a song taught in school. I miss that song book from school, and will never forgive myself for losing that one in the rush of youth. Never quite realizing how much I would miss it till I could no longer trace it.
My music teacher, mastermoshai, was 85 years old when he last taught me before my parents moved to Calcutta. Before that, when I went to Chasnala for vacations, he would come and have his lunch and then take a nap. Sometime between that and his waking up, I would take my nap, almost a necessity to drown out the intense, almost corrosive heat of the summer afternoons. Come evening, I would wake up to find mastermoshai sitting at the foot of my bed, shaking my legs trying to wake me up to practice singing. And I had the temerity to tell him I would sleep a tad more, and he kept urging and I kept deferring, till my mother came and with one shout, sorted things out. And then I would sulk even while singing. And mastermoshai would punctuate the evening with, ‘please, dear, concentrate on the singing – this raag is a happy raag, and it’s coming out all wrong.
You know what the paradox is? The only time most of us feel alive is when we feel a surge of emotion, when something overwhelms our ordinary, careful armour – our naked selves flung out to the world. That is why things that are the worst to undergo are the easiest to remember. But somewhere along the way, that almost-flung child gets buried away under the adaptive and protective shells, and we carry on as though coated with Teflon.
Today is a new day and let’s throw away everything off the table – that’s what they tell us. But my father had a car, a 1966 Ambassador, which he bought second-hand, of course, and which he had till our erstwhile government made it illegal (for a while) to ply those cars in the city. And then he became too old to drive it, his peripheral vision compromised in an earlier cerebral stroke. I remember the impossible-to-contain pride we felt as Baba took us all in and we went for a spin in that car, honking at the gates of a neighbor, them joining us. I remember that car holding at least 9 people quite comfortably, with ample leg-space for us kids to sit there while the adults struggled with their posteriors to get some seating grip. Yes, it would be the car; through all our years of changing bungalows, towns, cities, that car was a constant. WBB 9573. In the life of almost everyone, there are only a limited number of experiences which are not just written upon the memory, but almost stamped with a die. In the years after, when you are struggling to hold tight to each slipping memory, like the coarse dirt particles in a sieve, these few can be called up in detail and every emotion that was stirred by them can be lived through anew. Some of those experiences of mine were happy, many were tragedies. But now when I recollect them, I find a peculiar nostalgia recollecting how my dad’s car fuel gauge was always hovering dangerously around E. While we have moved on, and our cars fuel tanks are almost always now filled up completely, I still saw my father – even a couple of years back – taking out 200 rupees for petrol. And the ample boot of the car always had a jerry can – because those instances of the car puckering, stuttering and finally stopping altogether in what we feared was the most dangerous part of Govindpur GT Road were not infrequent. The driver had to make the trip to the nearest gas station, and came back with the can of petrol. The (usually) evening heat would soak through the walls of the car’s body – one (read, we) never had AC cars, they came much later as possibilities in our imagination – the heat rose from the floors of the car, and I remember even that, like ghosts of summers past.
And how many of you can even relate to this thing my dad did with his car – we called it ‘down mara’? It went like this – the landscape around Dhanbad/Sindri was fairly undulating and the roads took a similar pattern. So the foot was on the gas as one went up an undulation, and then when you reached the peak (OK, that is an overstatement, but you get the drift), he would turn the ignition off or ask the driver (even of his company car – this was ingrained in his DNA) to do so. So some petrol would be saved as the car hurtled towards the bottom of the elevation, gradually slowing in speed. Never mind the fact that all us siblings would be seething in the back-seats, because the journey time would increase at least by 50%. But we only seethed silently. One did not back-chat to one’s parents then, even friendly ones like my father. Sometimes you have to travel back in time, skirting the obstacles, in order to love irritating habits of someone in some near-forgotten time.
My friends and I wrote fan-mails to filmstars and cricketers and some kind ones, like Kapil Dev and Gavaskar, even responded. In those adolescent years, we had a tabloid called Sun, which, for some weird reason, my parents allowed me to get every Sunday. So up came posters of Rod Stewart and other rock stars, stuck to the back of doors of our rooms (my brothers somehow never went through this phase – poor-childhood-deprived beings). Getting a photo, autographed from any of the hundreds we wrote to was occasion enough to strut.
One simply called up one’s friends, the mother of the family put a ton of food on the table and left us alone. All that seems to have changed now and I, hankering for those lost years of innocence and simple pleasures, am probably terminally strange. We were all equals, our fathers’ positions mattered not a bit, what car we had even less (the fact that one did not have too many varieties then could be a factor, maybe I am senselessly adding dollops of nostalgia into everything). Our surroundings did not have success written on them everywhere. Most mothers were home-makers. We had proof that home-making, if you did it right, was just as creative, just as vital and just as professional as what women were doing outside the homes. Truth be told, beyond this, and being teachers in our schools, there was not a great deal to do in those sleepy, dusty towns of our childhood.
Every time I open an imaginary door of the real homes of our childhood, it is like being in a time capsule. I have just one box preserved of the things we treasured. Snapshots, memorabilia, library cards of 30 years back, with information that I had not returned two British Council books but no knowledge where I could find them.
I shall remain thankful to so many for the tenderness of their arms that held me when I wept on their shoulders, and the several that held me through so much of the winters of our lives. The aunts and uncles, related by blood and many times by something thicker. Not to forget those that held me after every bicycle accident and every bad grade. For my aunts who made everything all right by blowing softly over scraped knees. For Pillai aunty who plastered me with delicious food on those hungry weekends from the miserable college hostel I was in. For uncle who would potter around trying to be helpful and getting shouted down by aunty and us. For another aunt whose house I practically used to live in, while her husband, my dear kaku, would grumble good-naturedly that my dad was getting my share of the rations in Chasnala while I was eating into his family’s here in Calcutta. I had the right to place my hand next to my friend’s when she asked for money for bus fare, and I always got the same amount, the grumbling notwithstanding.
For Robinda who religiously came to visit me in Boarding school, bringing a bar of chocolate every time he came. I felt a sense of ruthless propriety towards him, he was so much a part of my life and childhood I took him for granted. God I took him for granted, like I did my own brothers. And look where it got me. And we became older people with ordinary problems and then he suddenly died on me. Leaving his family, child, parents, wife, bereft.
Each one of us is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this innermost emotional self. I try not to take note but at every moment, behind my most efficient seemingly adult exterior, the whole world of my childhood is carefully held like a glass of water bulging over the brim. My childhood is real, – the child in me, still here in bits, is real, and it cannot understand why it was born and knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own.
There was a time I wanted many things. I would look at the stars and dream. I wanted to see Egypt, Italy, Prague, or other far-flung destinations. I wanted to tour the world, see different cultures, different people. But these nights, I look up at those same stars, but I don’t quite want any of those things. Or let’s just say, I want them, but I want much more to just go back to my life from my childhood, just to visit it, and touch it, and to convince myself that yes, it had been real.