A picture posted by a friend, of her mother and her, sepia tinted just like all happy memories become, brought to life a barrage of memories. They always reside in the corners of my vision anyway. I remembered the Holi we used to play in Chasnala. Nowhere is Holi played the way it was in Chasnala. This has been agreed by everyone who ever lived there and played Holi there. We would pluck palash flowers from several trees lining the roads of our colony, or sometimes from our own gardens, and keep them submerged in a tank of water near the kitchen garden. The longer they stayed, the deeper were the colours. Ohri Auntie, with her substantial girth, would somehow get up on the roof of their bungalow along with the junior engineers – in those very hierarchical worlds and times, this was the only time the twain met without the smell of fear – and they would dump coloured water on unsuspecting people. Many junior engineers, young lads in awe of the seniors, would come to our house and on that one day, they were allowed to go completely on the other side of the proverbial table and hold my otherwise imperious father, hold him down as someone would get the garden hose pipes and spray my gleefully laughing father copious amounts of coloured water. They called it ‘servicing’ him, calling it ‘annual maintenance’. Sweet revenge for all those times during the year when they would be shouted at, reprimanded, told they were useless.
We would all get out. Puri auntie would get the dholak and there would be a lot of singing and dancing. There would be bhang pakodas which some indulgent adult would let us taste. We would walk away wondering what the big deal about it was. It did nothing to us. Somewhere down the years, I became the near-professional Holi singer, belting out song after song as my voice began to croak, although I can’t remember what songs I sang before Rang Barse became our signature Holi song. There would be Srivastav auntie, whose boys we did not like, who made the world’s best kanji (surprisingly, even spell-check passes this word, but I am not sure that is what it was called). One such Holi, there was a particular lady who refused to come out. And Robinda, that other brother I lost, managed to snake his hand through the slats of the French window and then we threw colour into her house. Just like that. Out of sheer unadulterated spite. And we never felt or were made to feel miserable about it. Good natured rebukes soon forgotten.
Even earlier, when the Brits used to be our neighbours, there would be these boys Mark and Ward, whose sister was called Samantha and that is how my father named my cousin Samantha, because she looked like a blonde doll. They would only come during vacations, but would would spar royally with the Srivastav boys. Srivastav uncle had a car which just lay there, we had rarely seen it mobile, even by a few metres. And one day, because we had hidden in the huge dry drains lining our dark roads and thrown pebbles at their cycle spokes as they were passing, their tyres went flat, and they fell in ways rather undignified, especially given that they were older than us, to our utter merriment. We were rebuked by Mr Edmunds. And grounded for a week, I think. And so to exact revenge, some of the boys of ‘our’ gang, including the Edmund kids, went and put sugar in the radiator of the car as it lay parked, as ever looking completely unable to purr to life. After that, it never did. I don’t know why we remember it so well, because everyone from that time does – but it could have something to do with the hiding we got from our respective parents. Or it may be just the funny thing memory does – one just remembers certain things. And one discusses it decades later with siblings or long lost friends and realizes everyone has the same memories. There is no reason on earth why I should remember one trip from a Durga-Puja pandal-hopping, loaded in the car with aunts and uncles, and we siblings remembered the shapes, colour and sizes of not just our own balloons but also those of each other.
Cars those days were the vehicular equivalent of the Water of India. You could fit an incredible number of people in it, and if your father had an Ambassador, it meant the whole world and their cousins expected, quite reasonably, one thought, to be taken for a ride. And no, I meant, literally.
Our childhood was measured by such sounds and smells and sights. We did not think of our future that much in those days – that would happen anyway. When I contrast that with the single-minded dedication of kids today to get what they want, I let out a silent scream and shudder. Then again, if they don’t have that dedication, as parents we will be shuddering for a lot longer. We carried our childhood with us much longer. Our innocence left us free to enjoy ourselves in ways different from kids these days. So while our parents went to each other’s houses to while the evening away in convivial chatter, – there were no TV’s or videos, no K serials, no smartphones to gaze at while they spoke to someone else, – with seldom the need to go beyond many cups of tea, we kids would roam the streets of our safe and beautiful colony, our shrieks and laughter coming out almost in sparkles and shining up the inky starry night skies. Sitting by the black river bearing the coal-washery’s water, Neeraj Bhaiya, would play on his violin. I would sing, although not so much in the earlier days; my brothers were painful and teased me endlessly if I tried. They were painful, period. But I will happily give both my arms to have those times back. It was not easy growing up a girl where the brothers ganged up against you. ALL the time. But I had Apuda, years older than me but who had decided I was to be under his care, and he belted out the most soulful Kishore songs in a voice and with a technique, complete with yodeling to perfection, which was so close to Kishore’s own, that even now, a lifetime away, every time I hear Yeh Kya Hua and Chingari, the pit of my stomach turns weirdly, and there is a dull nostalgic ache and tinged with the ever present regret I have that I have lost touch with these people from my life. Apuda had a significant stammer, which never came during his singing, and we wonder about it even now. Some modern day Demosthenes.
There was this utterly feminine man who was our dance teacher, who went from Calcutta every Saturday, and our verandah was usually the place where the classes were held, as we contorted our awkward limbs into impossible postures to, what else, Rabindrasangeet. I was painfully thin and looked the worst, and then an afternoon worth of teasing from my brothers about it never helped.
Once we were children. We lived in a place which no longer exists. Well, no, the place does exist, but it will have altered so much from what is stuck in our hearts and minds that it will likely be unrecognizable. I even had a drawing teacher who would get Nandalal Bose‘s books to teach me how to draw hands and feet but spent most of his time looking at my unformed young breasts, barely noticeable through the pleats of my frock. And I got sick of his staring and told my mother and I have no idea what she told my dad, but the guy stopped coming.
So, recently, even though we went to Dhanbad and I had a chance to visit the place, after some demurring, I decided not to. My brother had told me a couple of years back to never revisit places with memories we hold precious. He made sense. That place no longer exists, the house no longer exists, in a colony which is so altered it could be a different world, where we discovered everything, and everything was possible. It was a world where we made up a thousand games, where my brothers would be marching up and down the lawns in front and the alleys in the back garden, stick or pebble in hand, somehow, for some weird reason shouting, “Jyoti Basu Zindabad, Jyoti Basu laal salaam”. Must have been the influence of my kaka, but how extraordinary that they should do that, because at those pre-CPM days, I don’t remember any long discourses on politics in our house. A stick would be a sword, a pebble could be a diamond and a tree a castle. A guava tree could also be a refuge for us, large evening mosquitoes notwithstanding, if we did badly in our exams and our father would need to sign the report cards.
We made up a thousand games, bullying the weaker one to always be the servant while someone else was queen. In the autumn light our eyes shone like jewels when nothing else was visible. We collected our worlds in small handfuls, and when our mothers all started shouting out to us from their gates, we would part with leaves in our hair. A little later, childhood crushes happened and there would be someone whose laughter would ring like music, whose eyes would be questions we could spend a whole life answering. But those were very transient. We believed in magic, born and raised in a magic time, although none of us realized the silver filaments of chance and circumstance that held the magic together. Until we got all magic educated right out of us. Our wildness and youth ended as we learnt to act our ages, grow-up-for-God’s-sake. I used to always think I would never allow it to grow out in my child, would never let it wither in sadness and shame. But kids these days, after toddlerhood, are not surprised by anything anymore. My son has always been a good kid, never wanting much, probably also because he never needed too – the legion of friends and family who spoilt him made that unnecessary. But once you go far away from it, you cannot get it back, that magic. Not really. Like now, I can’t get that magic back into my life. I just have seconds of knowing and remembering. When I cry at the happy moments instead of the sad in movies, it is because that pool of magic is somehow touched, even if for the briefest of moments.
Stolen Wednesday evenings hearing Binaca Geetmala, because a friend of our uncles would come and my parents could not refuse him. I would hover oh-so-carelessly around, stopping if I heard strains of songs with the inimitable Ameen Sayani compering it, and furiously trying to calculate which song would top the list that week. But I am now so grown up, I have not even checked if that program or indeed the radio station is still there. Our childhood poured the whole of itself into each moment. Somehow, there is no feeling that heart-bursting joy any more. Life’s bounty was in its flow, later was too late. Who wanted to own the future anyway? We tried tricks from Enid Blyton books, and my son has not even read one single book of hers. Fancy that! We were far too happy playing hopscotch in the streets, losing ourselves in the woods behind our houses, plucking berries and running away when we heard the jackals call. The absolute joy of seeing the guardsmen in their trolleys as they whizzed past in the railway line we could barely see! The truth is that every year we get farther away from our memories, shouldered with burdens. Things happen to us, we lose our way, one way or another. It’s not hard to do, in this world of crazy mazes. Life takes the magical memory away from us, and they only resurface at odd moments as they did with me.
40 years or so ago, my elder brother was trying to make a calendar made out of egg shells and failing miserably, which was due the next day. He was close to tears, as he was completely unaesthetic, surrounded by paper and pencils and unopened water colour palette, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. And then I walked up to him and told him to move, I would do it for him. I did, it was no big deal for me. But he went to school the next day and did not submit it, even though he took it. His conscience would not let him, as it was not his work. That is what makes it so right. Even in those undefined times, one’s soul was already formed.
I don’t want my childhood back for so many different reasons. Mainly though, because even now, after decades, I am still unable to shake the fear of Maths and Physics from my life. Even now I wake up from nightmares where I am in an exam hall, unable to solve the Maths paper, and you have no idea the relief that sweeps through my entire being when I realize it was a nightmare, and I would never ever need to know trigonometry and life went by fine without knowing the intricacies of Boyle’s Law or the periodic table. I had brothers who were science-oriented, as they say, and I had a nerdy older brother who did Nelson and Parker and Reznik/Halliday (?) in Class X. And we inherited his books, I without his brains. But my father could never understand how I, his only daughter, could not love Maths and Physics. Because he was convinced I was the one who had the most brains of the lot. Hah! I used to hope I could disappear, even from myself. Maths remained an experience which continued to bruise my spirit and I retreated into my non-science world. That world and the real world clashed hopelessly and irreconcilably at times. They do even now in feelings of inadequacy when almost my entire social circle is people who are in medicine or engineering.
Some things which often makes me wonder though are – do girls still get lice in their hair these days? I know I had to be routinely tonsured because my mother would despair at not being able to control them. Also, do any of you remember when capsicum and mushrooms came into our diet? I can remember the exact time. A large chunk of my childhood was without them being even known to us. Did you ever go for all-night shows called Kishore Nights? I did. Did you have uncles who told you that all we needed to do was grow up and be able to provide them whole eggs to eat? We did. And that whole-egg curry thing was also overhyped – we were never so poor that we could not afford them, but yet I have memories of my uncle placing the egg on one end of his plate, polishing off the curry on the other side, then pushing the egg to the other and polishing off this side till there was no curry left. I have memories of us all standing around kitchen stove-fires in cold December nights, after meals. I have memories of my uncle’s friends bringing me chocolates as I lay howling, crying copious tears two days in advance, because we would have to leave our grandparents place. I remember howling two days before anyone left our place after a visit. I remember my uncle getting us our first Boney-M records, (and you go live in UK and not many have even heard of them) and I remember waking up early during Mahalaya and having Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice just waft through my consciousness, not quite awake, not asleep either.
Each generation feels their childhood was special. But there is no such thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded childhood for anybody. We had a great childhood, but we had sadness too. Many dogs died and each took parts of our little hearts away with them. I think our generation saw more seminal changes in the way we lived our lives, then and now, than any other. It is our generation which still gets scoffed by the next for saying ‘taping’ when we mean ‘recording’. It is our generation which used to only be able to once write and saw the advent, and then the complete taking over of computers of our lives. And which switched from typewriters to the wonder of electronic typewriters to computers and now to tabs. But I guess what actually happens to all is that a sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth and winter delight, pervades our memories. And this will happen with the next generation too. Experiences will bruise spirits but rarely harm the ideal world, because one could always retreat to it. That world and the real world will clash hopelessly and one has to learn to keep them apart so that the former remains unspoiled. My son too will realize, as we siblings did, that you never really get to hang out with your family. You pretty much have only eighteen years to spend with them full time, and that’s it. But the bitch of it is that one will always realize it when regret is all we will have.