Thursday, September 25, 2008


We had two types of pocket-money when we were young, none of them regular, and both of them depending on the whim and will (and wallet) of the donor.

The first type was the money we “earned”, inspired by sundry Enid Blyton characters like Betsy May, who, whenever they coveted something, would work hard at chores and get paid in pennies which they saved up in shillings. To achieve this in our decidedly un-British Barrackpore, we would pester various reluctant and unbelieving elders, who would give us some errand (usually involving running to the nearby shop/market) and the money (usually the now-obsolete 10 paise, some-couldn’t-believe-our-luck-times 25 paise), more a ‘good-riddance’ money than a ‘good-you’re-wanting-to-stand-on-your-own-feet’ money.

In this, our favourite donor was undoubtedly my barama (aunt – my father’s elder brother’s wife), who would pay us 10 paise for every 10 grey hairs we would pluck off her head. As she had a full head of hair, mostly grey, this was an easy task. The only hitch was that each hair had to be fully white/grey from root to tip. So we would painstakingly separate the hair from its mates, raise it to check its greyness, and then give it a sharp tug. She got her scalp massaged, and we got our pockets filled. We loved the deal and, if it were left to us, would have plucked off her hair in hundreds in order to earn the elusive rupee. It’s a wonder that she didn’t become bald with all that pulling and tugging!

The other type of pocket money was the purely donated one. This was given only on special occasions like fairs and festivals. Durga Pujo, for example, was a five-day financial extravaganza for us, because we got at least 2 (at most 10) rupees every morning. Some of it would be used to buy the daily round of ‘caps’ (tiny pink rolls of firecrackers) that we would put in our toy guns which, irrespective of gender, we would strut about with in the parar pujo pandal (festival tent in the locality). The rest of my pocket money would go straight to my tummy, as I splurged on dalimer hajmi (a tangy-sweet eatable) and tetuler-achar-on-a-stick (tamarind pickle).

A little money sure went a long way those days.


Saturday, September 20, 2008


I am not a ghost-story-fan. The pleasure of reading or listening to ghost stories has a distinctly masochistic edge which gives me no joy.

But as a newbie in the hostel (Lady Brabourne College Hostel, where I spent two rocking-and rollicking years in the new-born nineties) my friends and I were the spellbound and open-mouthed listeners to the traditional resident ghost story, part of the myth-making integral to any institution, which is passed down through generations.

The story was about the next door Medical College Hostel, where the would-be doctors and surgeons had access to corpses and corpse-parts. In a fantastic regulation-flouting (and completely fabricated, I guess) incident, a plan was supposedly hatched to scare the wits out of a rather belligerent, 'over-smart' girl. Her irate seniors put a human arm (detached from the body, or so we were told) under her pillow. The poor girl was literally frightened to death when she fumbled under her pillow in the dark and found the nasty surprise.

In hindsight, the story seems ludicrous. But told in the dimly lit staircase of our hostel, with suitably suspenseful exaggerations and pauses, it scared us to immobility and irrationality . This effect was accentuated by the additional information that the room under the staircase where we were sitting had once witnessed a suicide (which is why it had no ceiling fans - this was the logical grounding to this gothic rumour).

All of us were scared. There is a shivery thrill in getting scared if you are in group which is completely lacking if you are alone. Round-eyed and goose-pimpled, we sheltered each other as we crept up the stairs to our (thankfully) two-seater rooms, but I at least had a nasty night tossing and turning, imagining the decaying slimy-grey coldness of the no-longer-human dismembered arm under the poor girl's pillow (in my nightmare, of course, it was transferred to my pillow and, supernaturally, it creeped out to clammily and gruesomely touch me).


Sunday, September 14, 2008


The first baby I remember holding in my arms was my nephew, Chimpu. I was around eight years old when his mummy, my cousin, came to stay for six months with her parents in our joint-family home.
My brother and I had excitedly decorated the bed in the room where the baby was about to stay with flowers (perhaps confusing the arrival of the new-born from the nursing home with the traditional arrival of a new-bride, when the marital bed is decorated with garlands). Sadly, our efforts were wasted because the hygiene-factor took precedence over the aesthetic-factor. The flowers were summarily removed, the bedspread changed, and then all was forgotten in the excitement of the arrival of the mint-fresh miracle.
Everything about the baby fascinated me – the oh-so-soft-skin, the bright-eyed gaze, the piercing yells, the tiny clenched fists, the paper-thin nails. I would visit him first thing in the morning, rush home from school - carefully washing my hands and feet before entering the sanctum sanctorum - to watch him sleep, or feed, or wave his limbs, or even do his surprisingly-yellow poop. To gaze, to sigh, perchance to touch (with a hand as gentle as a sigh), but I was happy just being near the baby - a living doll.
I especially loved to see him bathe, in his bright blue tub, splashing in the tepid soapy water, surrounded by all the Johnson & Johnson's paraphernalia and enveloped in the softest towels and sweetest smells.
As he was born in winter, my jethun (uncle) made a makeshift cradle from some tied to the then-unused ceiling-fan. As an extra precaution, the fan-switch was disconnected. And the baby would peacefully sleep or play in his rock-a-bye shelter.
When the baby was a few months old and his neck became steady and self-held, I was given the proud privilege of holding him for a few minutes, stiff and straight as a board, too conscious of my precious burden to really enjoy its warmth and wonder, till my nephew wailed loudly to make his (and my) discomfort known.


Saturday, September 6, 2008


Looking back at the past
Is like shaking the coloured fragments
Of a kaleidoscope
Jewel-bright mirrored-myselves
Looking back at me.

The yellow toy-duck-on-wheels
Towing her brood of three
Waddle past my grubby infant-hands
Splash with me in my crayon-blue tub
My teether-tether orange-beaked soother.

The dark green water-hyacinth
With their delicate mauve blooms
Part – and I can see
My eight-year face rippling
In the paler green pond waters.

The sour-dark brown of tamarind
Sprinkled sharp with red chilli
Enjoyed sprawled on dappled fields
Under the benign-blue winter skies
Taste and tint rolled into a ball.

Then, the crimson-confusion of growing up
The secret pride of the red rite of passage
The even more secret ebony-agony of my skin
Wondering why “fair rules” and “dark rues”
Teenage bravado wiped away the pain.

Oh! I could paint on and on and on
Myriad-shaded memories
They swirl and shimmer and shift
And, as I refocus my eyes
To the sharper-outlined today
Fade and blur into sepia.

(This on-the-spur post was painted for display on the canvas on Scribbit’s September Write-in Contest).