Wednesday, July 30, 2008


When I was young, our food used to be cooked on a coal-oven or chullah, which is called unoon in Bengali. It was a bucket-like contraption of iron, with a door at the bottom where the fire was to be lit. The top had an iron grill surrounded by a clay mould on which you could place the handi (pot) or chatu (pan) or kadhai (wok).

Early every morning, my mother would take the unoon out in the courtyard, clean it of the ashes of the previous day, and light a fresh set of coals for the day’s cooking. This time-consuming process involved layering the grill with shiny black pieces of coal (from the coal-shed in the garden), breaking pieces of ghuntey (dried cowdung-cakes – also stored in that same coal-shed) and fitting them at the bottom through the door and then lighting rolls of old newspaper and pushing them through the door.

Maa (mother) would bend down and blow on the fire-lit paper so that the flames blew up. The recalcitrant cowdung-cakes would gradually start to smoke and catch a dull fire, which would, in turn, pass on to the coals on top, which would begin to glow orangey-red.

The first thing cooked was, inevitably, the big aluminium kettle of tea which would wake up the rest of the family. The coal fire would last till mid-day, and a steady succession of utensils cooking various dishes for breakfast and lunch would grace the top of the unoon. The dying mid-day embers would heat the last pot of hot water (for washing the kitchen-napkins) before expiring into charred grey ashes, which would disintegrate into powdery whispers when we blew hard on them.

At sundown, under the fiery-orange bank of clouds on the western sky and the lengthening shadows of the coconut trees bordering the courtyard, accompanied by the homecoming twitter of the birds, Maa would light the coal-stove again, this time for the evening meal.


Monday, July 21, 2008


They say that the olfactory sense is the strongest and most primal and sensitive.
So, here I am, trying to recall smells (favourite fragrances, odious odours, whatever) from my childhood. Not an easy job, because my nose knows not what to recall.

One smell I recall is of milk burning as Sabitadi (our daily help) patiently stirred the milk and sugar in a thick-bottomed pan to make ghano-doodh (condensed milk) for my dadu (grandfather) every evening for his supper (He would insist on his nightly quota of ghano-doodh, even if he had to mix it up with khichdi (spicy rice-lentil-vegetable-mash).

One of my favourite smells was (don't go yuck) the smell of cowdung cakes used to light fires in the clay-ovens used to cook food. I would save bits of these cakes and put them in a used tin of black Cherry-Blossom shoe-polish (another smell I just loved). What a weird combination that was!

Another more uncomplicated (but maybe equally weird) smell which I loved was the smell of raw kerosene. I would hang round my mother whenever she would sit down with all the lanterns and kerosene lamps (used during the inevitable daily powercuts) to clean the glass covers (which would get darkened with soot) and refill them with kerosene poured through a dark green plastic funnel.

There I go, though! My memory is definitely more visual than olfactory.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008


In my mamabari (mother’s father’s house), there was a large burnished wooden clock with a round face and emphatic, clear numbers written on it. It also had a large pendulum which had an ongoing disagreement with the hands of the clock – a disagreement as to what time it really was.

At each half-hour, the large hand would point to six (as it should), and the pendulum would give a subdued chime (as if grudgingly agreeing). But whenever the large hand would point to twelve, the pendulum would vigorously disagree with the small hand regarding the time of the day (or night) and would chime away with a will of its own. If the hands showed seven o’ clock, the pendulum would disobediently sound eleven gongs; if it was, say, four o’ clock on the face of the clock, the pendulum would reprovingly strike only once.

There was no logic to the pendulum’s chimes, it was accurate for the half hours, but for each hour, it would swing any number of times. One may say that it suffered from mood swings.

This moody clock was called pagla ghari (mad clock) by us and it was hung on the wall behind my grandfather’s special easy-chair (wooden reclining chair) in the drawing room. The fact that the clock ticked away behind my grandfather when he was relaxing on the chair, coupled with the inaccurate pendulum, somehow robbed the clock of all the sense of hurry and urgency usually associated with clocks. Maybe, there was also the fact that we stayed at my mamabari during holidays, when there was no need to measure and frantically keep pace with time.

All this gave the eccentric clock a peculiar aura of timelessness and made the pursuit of time a guessing game (if one was lying in the bedrooms, where you could hear the pendulum chime but not see the clock-face), full of fun and surprise, and the accuracy of calculating the time ceased to matter all that much.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I mean 'tales written with animal characters'. Like Tuntuni, Peter Rabbit, or Winnie-the-Pooh, or Wind in the Willows. Or Aesop's fables and other such morality tales. What every child in the pre-television age (and hopefully many in the Post-TV age, too) grew up on.

But my favourite-st as a child was a tattered copy of LALKALO (Red-Black) by Girindrashekhar Basu. This book had originally belonged to some hoary ancestor and had, according to family legend, travelled across seven seas (the river Ganga, really) with the family when they shifted from what-would-soon-become-Bangladesh to Barrackpore (which was safely and securely in Indian territory). I don't know if this was true at all, but the book looked ancient enough. I could easily smell the fertile soil of Balubhara (Full of sand), our original village home, in its yellowing pages, and trace the waters traversed by my father and his family in the faint smudges between the lines.

The legend of the book fascinated me as much as the story it told. An epic battle between the aggresive red ants and the peace-loving black ants. Like so much of heroic literature, a woman (or wo-ant) is at the bottom of it all: the luscious-bottomed black beauty, the queen's hand-maiden, who is eve-teased by a rascally red ruffian. She cries to the black queen, who complains to the black king, who reluctantly declares war to save honour.

The reds are the fighter-ants, determined to win by force or guile. But many dramatic reversals and suspense-filled moments, the black ants win. Providence, good friends like the ant-swallowing toad and chameleon, and a timely interpretation of the scriptures (which says that the red ants will subvert the order of nature and grow wings, but this will bring death to them) save the lives and honour of the black ants. The epic battle suitably ends on the battlefield, with the conquering heroes and their loyal friends gathered together for the celebratory feast, merry-making and singing lustily (with a chorus of chirping crickets) of glory.

It's a delightful mock-heroic, wonderfully narrated. Recently I saw a reprint (the original being long lost), thanked my lucky stars, and bought it for my daughters. The new version has already travelled from Kolkata to Mumbai. Maybe that's the beginning of an epic odyssey, who knows?


Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The recent Vodafone ad featuring two schoolchildren with fountain pens is definitely anachronistic, since today’s children have never seen, let alone used, a fountain pen. But it brings a nostalgic smile to us thirty-somethings, because the fountain pen was such an important part of our growing-up years.

It marked a rite of passage. You passed out of Standard 4 (nearing the end of primary school) and you were handed a fountain pen to write with. No more pencils. No more sharpeners. No more erasers, and the dirty mark they would invariably leave despite ruthless scrubbing! (Now don’t be a spoilsport and remind me that we still needed pencils for science diagrams and maths graphs). We could all be grown-up and proudly clip our pens to our pockets.

I remember having two Artex fountain pens, one green and one maroon (I was an ardent fan of Mohunbagan – the football team in maroon and green). Every week, I would take a dropper and carefully fill them with royal blue ink from Camlin or Chelpark bottles. I can still smell the faint mouri/saunf/aniseed smell which seemed to emanate from Chelpark ink-bottles. ‘Carefully’ – is the operative word (though not always the ‘operational’ word), because we had to be wary of spills and smudges, while filling and while writing. It was this very carefulness which was supposed to have an improving effect on our haywire-handwriting, unlike the more modern, use-and-throw ball-point pens, which spoilt our cursive abilities (or so the fountains of wisdom said).

Being magpie-minded, I preferred gleaming-golden nibs to the staid-steel of my Artex pens. I had a maroon (the pre-neon gel pen manufacturers were rather colour-challenged, weren’t they?) Wilson pen, with a shiny golden cap and a shinier golden nib, ‘made in China’ (when that label still meant exclusivity). It had an in-built ink-filler, so I could just dip the nib and fill it, without any spilling. The precious-pen was gifted to me by a very dear friend and was used only on special occasions and only with extra-special black ink.

One of these special occasions was my tenth standard board exams. After that, in my higher secondary years in college, I switched to ball-point pens with indelible inks (we were pressed for time, and scared that ‘our answers might wash away if it rained and if we wrote with fountain pens, if the examiners left the answersripts out in the open’ – weird logic, but exams were a superstitious time!).

And so ended my association with fountain pens.