The other day I was disposing a lot of my son’s toys and I remembered how before my son was born, I would get expensive toys from all over UK for my nephew. He was about 2 years old then, I remember I bought him a suitcase-load of toys I thought he would enjoy. Three days into my vacation, his favourite toy again became the top of the powder-case twirling around on a pencil, making a tut-tut noise which would slowly drive us all crazy.
A few years later, my own son was born, and like all parents who had more money than their parents did, – and thus the vicariously lived childhood – we overdid the toys bit. He had all kinds of aunts and uncles – our friends in UK, – who never let him feel the need for something either. I remember how once, when Neel was a toddler, we noticed he liked to play with pots and pans (probably because I would sit him down on the kitchen counter and do my cooking). So we went to Argos and got him a very real looking oven. It had four hobs which lit up, and the moment you placed a pot on the hob, it started making the frying noises. As we took the order to the counter, the lady told us we should go for the other one – a basic plastic thing – but we were nouveau parents and smiled politely and bought what we wanted anyway.
And thus began two 24 hour period when all I could hear in my Bury. St. Edmunds flat was the tut-tut-tut of the frying. One evening as my husband came back from work, I told him we HAD to go return it or I would go mad. The joys of the first world is that they will take back almost anything, and so sheepishly we went, trying hard to avoid what we were sure was the mocking gaze of the lady. We came back with the basic plastic one, and lived happily ever after.
One of my friends has this theory about delayed gratification. Well we had a childhood where there was little gratification. In the sleepy suburban township we lived during our childhood, toys were never a necessity. There were trees, playing fields, remarkably tolerant parents all around. During holidays, if we got delayed, we would eat and sleep at our friends’ houses, and all our parents needed was a phone call to inform them. There is something about childhood friends that you just can’t replace. Childhood friends are like cousins, really, you can’t choose them, they are usually a matter of chance, whereas in adolescence they are mostly a matter of choice. So you have childhood friends who were your friends simply because they lived next door. Or the one next. You do drift apart, mostly, later in life, but their thoughts always warm one’s hearts. Things and people you grew up with stay with you. You start a certain way, and then spend your whole life trying to find a certain simplicity that you had. If you think about it, really, it’s less about staying in childhood than keeping a certain spirit of seeing things in a different way.
After school (and we kept inordinately long hours then), we would dump our bags, grab something to eat and change into normal clothes – even that did not involve much thought, I can still remember most of my clothes from my childhood, we had so few – and we would go out to play. We played kho-kho, some cricket but then the boys would laugh, or just tag. Yes, mostly tag. Or just running around. Picnics, Saraswati Pujas completely organized by the colony kids except for Jethu, who did all our marketing with us. I think I lost my god when all the piling of books did not improve my Math grades at all. The joy of involvement, of knowing it was my ‘alpona’ on which the idol stood, the khichuri bhog, and the intense sadness when it was all over in a day. We roamed around listlessly for a few days before we became normal again.
We had games I have never heard anyone even mention nowadays. Something called “Lal eeNth”, which involved marking the black tar road with brick pieces – I forget the rules. We spent a lot of time outdoors, unsupervised, which was a blessing. Lack of resources was never a problem in childhood games. Shift a few pieces of furniture around the living room and we had a fort. That nasty kid would not share his bat simply because he got out and the bat was his? No problem, we would just manage a piece of wood from somewhere and some bricks would be the wickets. Power cuts in the evenings – we would holler to our friends, voices reaching in the pitch darkness and the night silences, we would gather and begin playing dark-room. Till our mothers told us girls we should not be playing them any more with the boys. Oh well.
Then there was this game we girls played with five pieces of stones, and another one always in hand. You had to pick one, then two, then three etc pieces together from the ground while throwing up one stone and catching it all at the same time. We were a motley group of characters, trudging through life sharing diseases, lice sometimes, (I wonder what happened to all the lice kids got then? I never hear that as a problem anymore, but the number of bottles of Baygon Spray, or later, when it got invented or we chanced upon it, Lycil, our parents put on our heads, they would be caught for cruelty and we would be taken into care in a civilized world) borrowing books and remembering to not return them.
With siblings it went a step further, we coveted each other’s desserts, only we had not heard the term yet. My mother would make ice-cream at home and warn us not to have it till the evening. And then, as the heat settled a bit, she would divide it among the lot of us and we would devour it immediately, but my older brother – always my older brother – would spit on his bowl and keep it back in the fridge to have later, when we didn’t have any left.
We locked each other out of rooms, tried to experiment with tricks in Enid Blyton books – invisible ink, opening up locks etc. Hiding shampoo, (who remembers the one curvy ladylike bottle of Tata Shampoo?) borrowing pencils and then losing them, laughing, fighting, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it the same time. Boomba falling off a tree and bleeding profusely from his thigh, and as I held him tight and brought him to ma, him telling me he thought he was dying and could I please give a book he had to Praveen?
My father had a lot of family responsibilities, which meant we did not quite get to live the life even his position or salary could provide us. So we learnt to do without. I never had a cassette recorder till quite late in life, even though I loved music. So when my older brother went to the US, he remembered to get me a Walkman. The joy of rolling down car windows, headphones in place and the wind brushing my face…… And now, when I, through sheer force of habit, say ‘tape’ when I mean ‘record’, I get rude guffaws and comparisons with dinosaurs from my son. They just don’t know what it was to crave for something and then get it. In our hurry to be providers, we provided them much more than they needed, maybe much more than they even wanted.
I remember how my father got a toy dog which walked and wagged its tail after a little bit of pushing. Just when my brothers, especially them, got excited about it, we were told it was the birthday present for a friend. I don’t think I would be able to do what my parents did, which was to pry away the toy from our hands and wrap it to give it to this by-now-completely-horrible-boy-we-wanted-dead. And then to put it back in our hands to give it to the boy. I remember the short ride back, and how we were all glum, throats heavy with tears, never quite forgiving our parents or understanding why we could not keep it. It was only years later, when I saw my own son hurt by a friend of ours – inadvertently, of course – when another child was given a coveted toy and he was not, that I understood partially, how my parents must have felt, how it must have broken their hearts to do it. There was no sense of entitlement to anything.
Everything that has happened to me in my life has defined who I am, and all the things leading up to it all came from overcoming challenges in childhood. Our relatives formed the natural setting of our childhood. Our cousins would come for their vacations, and in my boys-filled life, this was a great respite because I now had girls who I was close to, and we would be this huge band of children of varying ages and sizes. Memories of our uncles and aunts taking us by the scruff of our necks and making us have our baths are still very fresh. We were not allowed to see movies because our loco-parentis uncles would not allow us. But we still slunk out and saw a few, in those completely, impossibly filthy movie halls. As I, with my habitual snobbery, now refuse to see a movie in a stand-alone hall, because I refuse to play this dodging game with a 7-footer man in front, I remember how I was, and it seems like a separate life. Not necessarily a bad one, but different nevertheless.
One of my aunts, – she used to work, – but would come back, I am sure dead beat. But she would change, do all the daughter-in-law duties and then would spend hours telling us stories of Hindi movies we would never see. I remember seeing Akhri Khat and Anuraag way later in life and being wonderstruck at how accurately and caringly kakima told us the stories. I know if I were asked to do the same by kids the age we were then, I would just lay out the bare skeleton and tell a completely unremarkable story. That must have involved a lot of loving too. A bunch of children belonging to her brothers and sisters-in-laws could not have been such a joy to come home to at the end of a long hard day.
People change with time. There are things that happened to me as a person in my childhood and years later they seem alien and strange to me. I keep trying to decipher my relatives from then to how they have become now and so many times, they end up as feeling like strangers. But then, when you think about how you were when you were 14, don’t we all feel a certain alienation?
Afternoons spent waiting for my uncle’s factory siren to come on in Neamatpur, waiting for him to come, and then, after lunch, lying down on the red floors of the ground floor rooms. The sapping heat, the wetting of cloths and putting it on us to get some semblance of cold. The plucking of their grey hairs and getting paid 2 paisa per hair, which then meant one was forced to cheat, – even we had standards – so we would tug at a hair many times, or show the same hair after tugging at it, as proof of our labour. The slight irritation and sadness when he had to get up and go back to work. In the afternoons, lying down with our grandparents and listening to the same stories over and over again. And then there are the quicksilver moments of my childhood I cannot remember entirely, or at all. Irresistible and emblematic, I can recall them only in fragments and shivers of the heart. They usually involve my brothers.
My brother that was a huge fan of an aunt of mine, Fulmashi, my mother’s sister. We went to Nainital and he hurt his head. Chhotomashi, my youngest aunt, became the one who accompanied him everywhere then, because Fulmashi could not go, as she had just got married. My brother quietly telling Chhotomashi not to tell Fulmashi that he had grown so close to her. One of my uncles, now gone, mejo meshomoshai, pandering to every wish of my brother’s because he had hurt his head. And I used to distinctly feel Chhotomashi loved me more than she loved my brothers. No idea where that feeling came from but it did. Once when a younger cousin came to my maternal grandparents place (she was younger, and cuter, than us), all the uncles and aunts rushed to cuddle her. We siblings stood on the steps of the courtyard with my brother saying, rather forlornly, ‘let’s go back tomorrow, nobody loves us here – look they all love Maam better’.
A meshomoshai bribing my older brother to get my cousin to sleep, and such was the lure of the lucre, my brother took on the task and got my cousin to sleep. The hot humid afternoons, and the sleeping on the breezy terrace at night, the pointless giggling. Where do all these things go? Were they even real? Not even the brightest future can make up for the fact that no roads lead back to what came before – to the innocence of childhood or the first crush. In some ways, siblings are more influential in our childhoods than our parents. I know mine were. Which is why even when my father died last year we realized so many years on, those days still hurt a lot more than this did.
Sometimes we pretended and tried on maturity to see if it hung baggy, tasted good or bitter, smelt nice or filled our lungs with smoke that made us cough. Childhood was not knowing how much living cost, and caring even less. It was going to bed in the summer with dirty feet on clean sheets. It was thinking anyone over 18 was ancient. It was the smell of guavas and berries, and plucking them off trees and finishing them even before reaching the kitchen. It was the period of our lives intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth. It was before teenage crushes happened and complicated friendships. Some childhood memories warm you up from the inside, but they also tear us apart.
Songs and smells bring back a moment in time more than anything else. Apuda singing Kishore songs as we listened with rapt admiration. It’s amazing, even now, 30-40 years later, even now when I hear Yeh Kya Hua, I can only think of that older boy who took me under his care. It’s amazing how much can be conjured with a few notes of a song or a solitary whiff of a room. A song you didn’t even pay much attention to at the time, a place you didn’t even know had a particular smell.
We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past, like ancient stars that have burned out, are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about every day, too many new things we have to learn. But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away.