Saturday, May 31, 2008


Not cigarettes…though my father was a heavy smoker. I am remembering the daily evening ritual performed in my childhood home to get rid of pesky mosquitoes.

In the late afternoon we would play outside in the parar math (neighbourhood playground); frantic games requiring a lot of running about. When we would sit down on the grass, panting, sticky with sweat, the mosquitoes would buzz above our heads in droves, looking like vertical quivering grey columns above our heads. Inexplicably, some of us would have hardly any mosquitoes chasing us, while others would have large fan-followings (We said that eating sweets made the blood sweet, which attracted mosquitoes).

The mosquitoes would follow us home, some intrepid ones settling on bare arms and legs to bite. Inside the house, they would lurk in dark corners and beneath tables and beds, stinging and biting whenever they could, especially when there were power-cuts.

To combat the mosquito-menace, my mother and baroma (aunt) would fill an earthen open-top funnel-shaped pot (with a handle to carry it) with narkoler chhobra (coconut-fibre), put dhuno (a sharp-but-pleasant-smelling incense: the smell is preserved in my olfactory memory) on it, and light it so that there was no fire, only smoke.

This homegrown smoking weapon would be taken to each room and solemnly brandished all around, especially in the nooks and crannies, to expel the demon-descendants (Hindu legends say that mosquitoes were born from the tiny bits a demon’s body when he was killed and cut to pieces by a god – I’ve forgotten the names – a gory birth explaining the bloodlust of mosquitoes).

We would also temporarily desert the hazy battleground, returning only when the air was clear enough to breathe. Only my dadu (grandad) would refuse to move from his bed, sitting like a coughing-Gulliver (with his nose covered with a napkin) amidst the struggling, reeling Lilliput-mosquitoes.

The smoke-chased and chastised mosquitoes would flee (coughing and choking like us, I presume) for the evening, only to return, emboldened, the next day. Much like their foolhardy demon-ancestors, they were defeated again and again (by the dhunuchi - the aforementioned earthen weapon).

Now, in these anti-smoking times, we use liquid mosquito-repellents plugged into electric sockets. No haze, no hassle, no thrill of battle.


Sunday, May 25, 2008


Near my childhood-home in Barrackpore, there was a run-down cinema-hall optimistically called Chitrabani (literally meaning ‘Picture and Sound’). The picture would jerk and shiver as if malaria-infected, and the sound was none-too-reliable, often petering out. The lungi-clad, betelnut-juice-spitting audience would roar their displeasure, disrupting the sudden, unexpected silence, and the man in the projection room would make frantic whirring noises, and the sound and the fury (on-screen) and the peace (off-screen) would be restored.

My dida (father’s mother) was an avid film-watcher, though she did not understand Hindi. My brother and I were allowed to accompany her whenever she visited Chitrabani, much to our wide-eyed (and cocked-eared) delight.

It was in the decrepit darkness of Chitrabani, perched on broken, bug-infested seats, desperately trying to get a full view of the screen between the oily heads of the people sitting in front of me (who would, invariably and infuriatingly, put their heads close to whisper at all the exciting moments), that I first met the tall and tragic Jai in the block-buster SHOLAY. I fell in love with the film (like the rest of India has for the last three decades: SHOLAY regularly tops the best-Hindi-movie-ever charts). And I fell in love with the actor playing Jai: AMITABH BACHCHAN (again, like the rest of India has for over thirty years).

On the huge, dirty-dynamic Chitrabani screen strode this intense-eyed, deep-voiced cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold, mesmerizing my seven-year-old-heart with his loyalty, wit, courage and sheer screen-presence. What clinched my captivation, I suppose, was his doomed-when-barely-blossomed love affair with the equally-reticent widow, Radha, and, of course, his death (sacrifice-to-save-his-buddy). Always a sucker for tragedy, I wept copiously and gloriously, returning home all wet with tears before the film ended because my brother had a high fever.

My dida thought I was upset because we hadn’t sat through till the end. So, next week, (SHOLAY is that rare film which runs for several weeks even in re-runs), the entire family went again for the ‘night show’; parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, all mellow and talkative after an early dinner.

Again the fast-paced SHOLAY-story cast its spell: the fascinating details of the lives of the villagers of Ramgarh, the drama of the good-evil conflict between the Thakur and Gabbar Singh, the Jai-Veeru friendship, the skirmishes in their battle with Gabbar Singh, their parallel-but-dissimilar romances, the many-mooded-songs-and-dances, the comic interludes, the swift, sudden strikes of tragedy.

Again I was caught up in the magic of Amitabh Bachchan, living (and loving, laughing, fighting, hurting) an intense-lifetime in those three hours. And again for me, the film ended when Amitabh (as Jai) dies, though I sat till the official end (when Gabbar Singh, the villain, is felled and Veeru, Jai’s buddy, reunites with Basanti, his belle), blankly gazing at the screen with sight-blurred-with-tears.

This was way back in 1980, much before the multiplex-experience. Till date, I must have watched SHOLAY over 25 times. Each time, I cry when Jai dies. Each time, for me, the film ends there.


Monday, May 19, 2008


My first trip to the sea was as an almost-eight year old. My parents, my brother and I went to stay for a few days at Digha, which perhaps is the beach-with-the-most-Bengali-footfalls. In the early 1980s, it was also the only beach-developed-as-a-tourist-destination in West Bengal. We boarded a WBTDC (West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation) bus in the morning, and, after a couple of stops (one for food, one for a breakdown, both accepted as ‘nothing out-of-the-ordinary’), reached Digha after sundown. Though my father took us to the beach and pointed out towards the sea, my journey-tired eyes saw only darkness and heard a muffled, equally-repeated roar – my first sea-sensation.

The next morning, after an impatient breakfast at the guest-house where we were staying, we went down to the sea, carrying towels and expectations. And though I think we lost the towel during our stay there, my expectations were more than met.

Digha is a very ordinary beach along the Bay of Bengal – brown waters, small waves, brown sands. Nowadays it is spoilt by erosion and by hordes of hooligans who go there to get always-drunk and sometimes-drowned.

But in the early eighties, there weren’t too many people around. The repeated roar of the sea was companioned by the ceaseless whispering of the casuarina and pine trees lining the beach. The middling brown waves thrilled my new-to-the-sea eyes and I loved jumping up along the wave’s curve in waist-deep water, before the foam broke some distance away and rush-rolled onto the sand. My brother was too young to enjoy the challenge of the waves, though, and started screaming when I went into the water, fearing maybe that I would drown.

The brown sands were prettified by thousands of tiny, pastel-patterned shells in pink, yellow, peach and green – all scattered here and there for me and bhai (brother) to find and hoard.

Mornings were for bathing and building sand-hills-and-caves. In the evenings, we would stroll on the beach, collecting shells, drinking coconut-water, watching the sun set slow-and-orange into the sea. And sit quietly, gazing out into the distance, wondering about the other shores that the water touched, feeling the cool-salty breeze, listening to the loud-faint-loud-faint rumble of the sea…till it became too dark to see the waves.

That sound stayed with me, captured in a large, orange, conch-shaped sea-shell (purchased, not collected). We did not have a camera, so there are no photographs of that trip, only seashells and memories.


Thursday, May 15, 2008


The first toy I remember having was a yellow wooden duck-on-wheels, with a happy-orange beak and with three (or maybe four) little ducklings attached to it by links. It was a pull-along toy with a string attached, and I have a vivid mental picture of a curly-haired child roly-poly-toddling, pulling along a waddling clack-clacketing mother duck, her ducklings frantically following.

Apparently I was so fond of the duck that I would insist on having it with me when I was bathed in my orange plastic tub. Not being a real duck, the toy did not survive the daily duckings in the soapy water. The links dismantled, separating my little duck family, and the bereaved-bedraggled ducks were relegated to the box-of-broken-toys.

Many years later, when I was an inquisitive eight-or-nine-year-old, on being told of my fascination for this toy, I hunted around the house and found two sorry-looking ducklings, bereft of their mother, their siblings and their bright yellow paint.

To atone for my childhood duck-misdemeanor, I tried to find a similar toy for my daughters, mentally promising to take better care of the duck-family. I couldn’t find a replica, though I did find a rubber mother duck with four ducklings nestled on its broad back. Sadly, my daughters did not share my childhood fascination for ducks (preferring four-legged creatures) and the rubber toy, almost as good as new, lies (family intact) in the box-of-unused-toys. Somehow, I don’t have the heart to part with it.


Sunday, May 11, 2008


His would be a much-awaited arrival. All through the HOT, sweltering-sweaty summer afternoons we would doze/loll/dully-play, with tongues-almost-hanging-out-like-puppies and ears-cocked-for-THE-SOUND-(also-like-puppies).

And sure enough, when the sun was fading into a gentler-orange, the ice-candy man would trundle his small push-cart noisily round the bend of the road, crying in his peculiar high-pitched-hoarse voice, “AIIIIICE-KEREEEEM…EI…AIICE-KEREEEM”.

Wheedling money (a very small amount by today’s inflated standards) from maa (mother) or dida (grandma) or whoever else was present and awake, we would run down the stairs and out of the garden-gate.

Crowding around the ice-candy man would be a group of our friends from the neighbouring houses, all jumping and clamouring to get their choice of ice-lolly (which we euphemistically called ice-cream) FIRST. Nobody paid any heed to the fading, temptingly-if-improbably-coloured picture-list-of-products atop the van (many of which, like milk-nut-creams, or vanilla-cones were perpetually out-of-stock). We all knew what was ‘available’ and we all had our ‘firm favourites’. Admonishing us to calm down, the vendor would dig into his magic-chest and bring out the lollies (handed over only after payment…maybe somebody had run away with an unpaid ice-candy once upon a time).

Tearing off the thin-sticky paper cover with eager-fingers, we would cautiously lick the first sharp-cold-saccharine-tang, then slurp/suck/crunch, the insides of our mouth benumbed and be-dyed, till we reached the woody blandness of the pale, faintly-coloured stick. And, if in the process, a bit of ice fell off the stick onto the ground and melted into slippery-nothingness before we could pick it up and put it back in its rightful place (in our mouth), we felt SO, SO NEAR-TEARS-DISAPPOINTED.

My favourite was the orange candy, which would turn ice-white after a few moments of vigorous sucking and shade my tongue a virulent fierce-flame (completely unhygienic, hazardous-to-health, low-quality food colour, I’m sure, but in those naive-1970s, nobody seemed to care or fear).

Sometimes, for a change of shade, I’d colour my tongue garish-green with a ‘mango-lolly. I tried the yucky-yellow pineapple, too, but the jaundice-shade did not please my tongue (or eye). My brother liked the so-called-chocolate-candy (actually ice-dipped-in-dark-brown-dye). And all this RAINBOW-BONANZA for 25 paise only (coins of this denomination are near-obsolete today). When the price was hiked to 40/50 paise for a stick, all of us howled our protest. But continued to long-for and lick-to-the-last-drop-on-the-stick anyway.

Many of these ice-candy sellers would copy the looping-scrawly logo of Kwality, the biggest ice-cream manufacturer at that time, declaring their wares Kuality or, correctly-by-mistake, Quality. The real Kwality’s vanilla/strawberry/two-in-one/butterscotch/chocolate ice-creams would come in paper-cups stocked in big shops. They were an expensive exquisite luxury we got to savour when we went to our pishi’s (aunt) house in Calcutta.

But for our daily-slaking-of-thirst, our everyday-antidote-to-parched-tongues-and-throats, we just loved the crunchy-cold, dubiously-coloured cheap-paise-purchases from the ice-candy-man.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008


By ‘letters’, I am particularly thinking of the blue inland letters. Whenever the postman used to rap on the iron-gate, the sun glinting on his bottle-thick glasses and dusty khaki uniform, I would go out to take the letter(s) expectantly, and would be absolutely thrilled if there were inlands addressed to me.

The beige postcards never gave the same thrill, being too brief and open-for-everyone-to-see. Though I liked to look at picture postcards, they were even briefer, and always seemed to be dashed off in a hurry.

It was the sky-blue double-folded inland letter which held secrets-waiting-to-be-read, with only the back flap indicating the letter-writer’s name. (This back flap also contained public service messages and pictures: Donate Blood and Save a Life, Protect Yourself from Malaria…some were special issue letters: Asiad 1980 or having the five-ringed Olympic logo).

The joy of opening it, the care taken not to tear-away-even-a-word-of-what-lay-inside struggling with the nimble-urgency of eagerness, the hurried first reading and the leisurely subsequent ones, savouring each word, mood, question…that was the peculiar pleasure of the inland letter.

And then, of course, there was the anticipation and preparation for sending the reply. Searching the cupboard for blank inlands (non-availability would bring about an immediate emergency trip to the post-office), ensuring that no one would interrupt or interfere. Then the thought-filled, lip-chewing, lengthy, cramming-words-into-all-available-blue-space reply, usually with a fountain pen, usually in Bengali interspersed with English. Then the sealing of the secret with gum (or boiled rice, or, at a pinch, saliva), and the short journey to the rickety no-longer-red postbox to drop the letter.

The busiest letter-giving-and-getting period of my life was when I was studying in Lady Brabourne College for my Higher Secondary (Plus-2), and staying in the hostel.

During term-time, I would dutifully write weekly letters to my parents, each letter beginning “Dear Maa” (my friends were surprised that I did not use the more traditional Bengali greeting “Sricharaneshu – at your feet”, but I hated its obsequiousness and its tough spelling), containing carefully-censored snippets of hostel-life and progress-in-studies, and, more importantly, demands for this and that. But my mother had an uncanny knack of reading between the lines (She read the ‘lines’ equally thoroughly and once replied to my brother’s letter by mentioning and rectifying each and every of his Bengali spelling mistakes. Thereafter, he wrote in English.).

During holidays, there would be the usual flurry of letters to and from friends. The precious-50- paise inlands were reserved for the close friends, the not-so-close ones merited much-cheaper-at-15-paise postcards.

The thrice-folded blue aerogrammes, bearing news from cousins settled abroad, were few and far between, and never thrilled me like the inlands from my friends because they were usually addressed to the entire family. Replying to them was also a family affair: a chain of small missives from my dida (grandma), aunt, mother and ending dutifully with us (Dear So-and-so, How are you? We are all fine here. It is very hot. Our studies are going on well. When are you next coming to India? With love, …).

John Donne said that “letters mingle souls for, thus, friends absent speak”. I still have bundles of fading inlands, speaking to me of days long past, in voices long distant. My daughters have never even seen one. The postman’s arrival today no longer thrills me – it’s only bills and bank statements. First issued by the Department of Indian Postal Services on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth-date, 2nd October, in1950, the inland letter is now as dead to urban India as the man whose birthday it shares. R.I.P.
What letters are stamped in your memory?

Sunday, May 4, 2008


My growing-up garden was also a hub of human (and other animal) activity.

Every morning in the holidays, I and my brother would take the phuler saji (flower-basket) and gather flowers for my mother and aunt, who would use them for the daily pujo (worship) of the thakurer-ashon (the seat of the gods).

We were strictly instructed to collect the more plentiful flowers (shiuli, jaba, tagar), and leave the roses and the lilies alone. I remember my mother and Baroma (aunt) diligently emptying the discarded tea-leaves from the tea-strainer at the foot of the rose-bush, trying to coax the sullen plant to bloom more often.

The coconut trees needed no coaxing – every year dozens of heavy green coconuts would grow at the top, and dadu (granddad) would caution us not to play under the coconut trees lest the nuts fall on us and crack our skulls. Every year, dida (grandmother) would call the coconut-tree-climber : the dark, lithe man who would tie a piece of rope around his ankles and skim swiftly up the coconut trees to chop off the nuts with his scythe. Two coconuts were part of his fees for the job, and then my dida would distribute the rest of the hoard among various aunts and uncles and their families. The coconut leaves would be dried on the roof to make brooms for the house (sadly, gifting brooms was not socially acceptable).

In summer, whenever there would be a kalboisakhi (tropical summer storm), we would rush to the garden to collect unripe green mangoes falling from the trees (from our tree and from the neighbour’s tree which peered into our garden), getting wet and then relishing the storm-scarred, sour fruits with salt and red chilli powder.

Not all was rush and bustle, however. I loved to wander about in the garden, watching the slow movement of the snails on the lichen-y brick walls. I also liked to see the earthworms wriggling about, forming curly soil-mounds after the rains.

I remember taking the dry brown betelnuts, scraping off part of the outer covering and drawing faces (the remaining cover looked like a shaggy fringe) on them to make heads for home-made dolls (medicine-bottles made the bodies). Baba (father) showed us how to blow bubbles with papaya-stems and soapy water, and to boil the orange shiuli-stems to make yellow-dye for dolls-clothes.

I had always wanted a swing in the garden (who doesn’t?), but there was no tree suitably-branched or sturdy enough, so my father made one with jute rope on our staircase-landing, perched on which I could glimpse a part of the garden. If I tried hard enough, I could imagine I was in the garden, swinging under the sky.